Sunday, January 07, 2018

On entrenchment

Following up on my earlier post and column, let's start taking a look at some of the more distinctive policy proposals on offer between Saskatchewan's NDP leadership candidates.

Probably the most noteworthy single promise so far is this from Trent Wotherspoon as part of his platform on Crown corporations:
Lock down our Crown Corporations and ensure they’re around for generations to come by putting the requirement for a referendum before any sale into the constitution…
Of course, the previous NDP government took steps to protect the Crowns through legislation, with decidedly mixed results. The Saskatchewan Party was cowed into acceding to the Crown Corporations Public Ownership Act. But it eventually felt entirely comfortable both selling off any public assets that weren’t specifically named, and indirectly attacking or ignoring the legislation itself after acceding to its terms once (PDF).

The major advantage of Wotherspoon’s proposal would then be to avoid allowing a single provincial government to sell off a Crown on its own to the extent a sale fell under the new constitutional definition.

But even if the NDP found a federal government willing to cooperate in passing a constitutional amendment to protect public ownership (which is far from clear with either the Libs or Cons in power, plus a requirement for Senate approval), it would face some logistical difficulties.

In order to lock down all Crowns, a constitutional amendment would need to be extremely specific in limiting all means of disposing of or reducing the public ownership of a clear and expansive list of assets. But there's some point where wording intended to protect against ill-advised sell-offs would also limit the ability to operate Crowns effectively by deciding whether some assets and lines of business might no longer fit within the public interest.

Meanwhile, it's also not clear that any protection would be extended to future Crowns which might be developed absent another set of constitutional amendments. And so any debate over a constitutional amendment, as well as any actual implementation, would likely be backward-looking rather than forward-looking.

Finally, the same process used to apply a constitutional amendment could eventually be used to reverse it - meaning that a single term of right-wing government at both levels could undo it in an instant. (And unlike the legislation still on the books, that process wouldn't necessarily involve any public consultation.)

To be clear, some of Wotherspoon's other proposals do rightly address broader issues and opportunities in the Crown sector. But they rank lower in priority and prominence than the constitutional proposal.

In contrast, Meili's platform plank on Crowns includes substantially more discussion as to where it's possible to expand on the services and industries currently included in the sector. And the future of our common wealth likely lies more in confirming for the public how the province benefits from treating Crowns as a valuable part of our economy and political system - not focusing on process to save them in form.

In sum, while it's well worth discussing how to protect and build Saskatchewan's Crown sector from corporatist politics, it's also worth questioning whether a constitutional amendment is the place to start.

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