National Column: Brad Wall, the shining conservative star

And then there was one.

With this week’s Liberal sweep in Newfoundland and Labrador by premier-designate Dwight Ball, the Conservative brand name has vanished from the list of Canadian governments for the first time since 1943.

The brand name is – for now – on the shelf, but the creed is hardly on its death bed. It burns brightly in Brad Wall, the Saskatchewan premier who is now the only elected leader at the federal or provincial level who can be called an ideological conservative.

That makes Wall one of the country’s most powerful politicians.

Yes, Christy Clark in British Columbia heads a centre-right coalition meant to keep New Democrats from seizing power and is a provincial home for federal Conservatives.

But she is not Wall’s precise soul mate, even if she had proposed changing the party name, rejected by a rank-and-file comfortable with the Liberal “brand.”

In recent years, conservative political dynasties have fallen. The nine-plus years at the federal level by Stephen Harper was swept aside in October. Progressive Conservatives in Ontario, who once ruled for 42 consecutive years, have now lost four consecutive elections to Liberals, 44 years of one-party rule crumbled in Alberta and now Newfoundland and Labrador turned its back on 12 years of Tories, consigning the halcyon days of former premier Danny Williams to the history books.

Liberals now hold every provincial legislature east of Manitoba.

This does not, however, necessarily presage two things – that the Conservative brand needs a radical makeover or that Wall of the Saskatchewan Party will be the next federal leader.

The federal party is under the interim leadership of Rona Ambrose and may wait until 2017 to choose a new leader. Wall’s power as the voice of conservatives in this country cannot be denied, particularly if he can win another strong majority in a provincial election in April.

He likes to say he works for only the people of Saskatchewan – a tiny base by Canadian standards – but the province has a proud tradition of premiers punching above their weight.

Wall has not been shy about speaking publicly on matters that are beyond the provincial purview.

He has criticized Justin Trudeau for pulling our CF-18s from Iraq and Syria. He counselled a refugee slowdown, and the Liberals agreed. He is not sold on the need for big federal-provincial conferences.

He is a not a total outlier on climate change, but he has been an eloquent counter to pro-environmental voices, telling reporters in Regina, Ottawa and now Paris that the estimated 30,000 jobs shed in the energy sector is not getting proper attention in the rest of the country, an obvious suggestion that the oil industry is being demonized by the national media.

Wall’s message may be part of his well-honed Saskatchewan salesmanship.

While his neighbour, New Democrat Rachel Notley pushes royalty reviews, higher corporate taxes and a made-in-Alberta carbon tax, Wall is offering a nod and a wink to investors, saying, “C’mon over, you’re welcome here.”

Indeed, the Fraser Institute on Tuesday released its annual survey of petroleum executives, showing investment confidence in Alberta waning but ranking Saskatchewan – factoring out proven oil and gas reserves – as the country’s most oil and gas investor-friendly province, the eighth most friendly jurisdiction worldwide.

Wall is influential, but he might be swimming against the tide as a federal leader. Leaving aside his lack of French and the historic reality that premiers do not become prime ministers, the federal party may be leaning toward a younger, female face on the party. Wall would also have to ponder a potential eight-year stay in opposition, a factor that kept another high-profile former premier, Frank McKenna, from the federal Liberal leadership.

Conservatives will put a greener, more collaborative leader in the job – maybe someone not yet on our radar – but it need not reinvent itself.

Barely three years ago, Dalton McGuinty resigned as Ontario premier, leaving the Liberal party without a leader in six provinces and in Ottawa. It held stable power only in Prince Edward Island as Clark appeared headed to certain defeat.

Since then, Trudeau was elected to a majority federally, and three of those vacancies were filled by Kathleen Wynne, Brian Gallant and Ball, who all head provincial majorities. Clark came back and Philippe
Couillard crafted a majority in Quebec.

We went from the era of the incumbent to the era of change, and that’s the thing about party brands and any potential prairie heir apparent. Change always lurks just around the corner, and you don’t always have to chase it.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Twitter:@nutgraf1

Copyright 2015 – Torstar Syndication Services

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