NDP calls proposed law to define ‘privatize’ a back door to selling Crowns

REGINA – Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall is defending proposed legislation that defines the term “privatize,” which the Opposition says is a back door to allow Crown corporations to be sold.

The province tabled a bill Wednesday that it says clarifies what would be considered privatization and gives the government flexibility to restructure Crown corporations while maintaining ownership.

The proposed law would allow the government to sell up to 49 per cent of a company without it being considered privatization.

“I think this definition ensures that we will not be privatizing the Crown corporations per that Act, that we will not see the control lost in Saskatchewan, but that we can have perhaps some equity investment in the Crowns or partners in the Crowns,” Wall said Thursday.

“That could see them healthier in terms of their balance sheets and maybe expanding and creating new jobs in Saskatchewan, while not losing those Crown corporations to the province.”

NDP Leader Trent Wotherspoon said Crown corporations deliver a huge economic and public benefit.

Crown Investments Corp., the holding company for the province’s commercial Crown corporations, provided a $297.2 million dividend to the government’s general revenue fund in 2015-2016.

“This would be a massive erosion of control,” said Wotherspoon.

“It’s a major betrayal and we’ll fight it every step of the way.”

Wotherspoon also said that Wall has repeatedly promised not to privatize Crowns and never mentioned selling equity in the corporations in the Saskatchewan election in April.

“And if the premier wanted to advance a privatization scheme, he should have been honest to Saskatchewan people,” said Wotherspoon.

The issue of privatization has been hotly debated in Saskatchewan for more than a decade.

In the 2003 provincial election, the NDP repeatedly said the Saskatchewan Party would sell the Crowns.

At the time, Saskatchewan Party leader Elwin Hermanson said that he had no plan to privatize Crowns, but would consider offers from the private sector. It was considered the party’s downfall and the NDP won the election.

The legislation does not mean that a sale of SaskTel, the provincially-owned telecommunications company, is completely off the table.

But the premier said any offer for SaskTel would have to “check off a whole bunch of boxes,” including generate a significant amount of cash — preferably enough to eliminate the debt — create jobs and provide better phone service.

Wall insists there’s no offer right now.

He said privatizing SaskTel or any Crown corporation would need to be approved by the public.

“We’ve now defined privatization and if we were to move on a privatization, which would be selling more than 50 per cent of a company to someone else, that’s not our call because we’ve campaigned against that,” said Wall.

“And so we would at least offer that to the people to decide in a referendum.”