REGINA — Saskatchewan’s political climate appears to be heating up when it comes the future of its commercial Crown corporations. In November 2012, the provincial government introduced legislation authorizing the sale of voting shares in Investment Services Corporation, a commercial Crown corporation that provides registry services, and announced that it is contemplating a 60 per cent partial privatization through a stock offering.
In a 2012 year-end CBC interview, Premier Brad Wall indicated that he would like to provide Saskatchewan voters with a clear policy on the privatization of the province’s commercial Crowns before the next election.
"It can’t be about ideology, he said. "It has to be what’s pragmatic."
He added that he would welcome a "rational" public discussion about Saskatchewan’s Crown corporations.
Saskatchewan’s first commercial Crown corporations were established for pragmatic public-policy purposes. According to Crown Investments Corporation, the holding company for Saskatchewan’s commercial Crowns, "Private sector companies either did not offer services, offered them only to major centres, or charged rural customers significantly higher rates than urban customers. Saskatchewan’s first commercial Crown corporations were established because essential services such as telephone, power, and hail insurance for crops were not available from private companies, or not available to all residents on a fair and equitable basis."
The commercial Crowns also provide head office jobs in Saskatchewan that otherwise might not exist.
As recently as the 2003 provincial election, accusations that the Saskatchewan Party had a hidden agenda to privatize Saskatchewan’s commercial Crown corporations became a major issue that helped to re-elect the incumbent NDP government.
In 2004, the Saskatchewan legislature, with support from all political parties, passed The Crown Corporations Public Ownership Act, which specifies nearly all of Saskatchewan’s commercial Crown corporations, and creates a daunting barrier to their potential sale. However, Investment Services Corporation, a commercial Crown corporation that provides registry services, was not specified in the 2004 legislation.
Saskatchewan’s commercial Crown corporation sector represents a large investment of public money, with consolidated assets of about $12.8 billion as of Sept. 30, 2012. It is both pragmatic and prudent to review periodically how these assets have performed, their situation and outlook, the continuing public policy purpose of government ownership, and to involve the public in the review process.
In 2008, I developed a framework for conducting a non-ideological, pragmatic Crown review. It called on the provincial government to establish an independent public review of Saskatchewan’s commercial Crown corporations based on rigorous, objective and transparent analysis with open public input and debate.
A Crown Review would foster informed public debate, and would help the government and opposition parties to develop clear policies on the commercial Crowns. A Crown Review would provide a pragmatic alternative to ideology in assessing the benefits, costs, risks, and continuing public policy purpose of government ownership of the various commercial Crowns, and in deciding which, if any, should continue under government ownership and which, if any, should be privatized.
It thus makes good sense and the provincial government would show good faith not to proceed with any partial privatization of ISC until after the completion of a Crown Review and the release of a clear policy.
It has been more than 15 years since the last Crown Review. When I proposed the framework for a new kind of Crown Review five years ago, the government indicated that conducting such a review was not a priority. Wall’s 2012 year-end interview suggests a possible change in the government’s receptiveness to the idea.
Sheldon Schwartz is the former vice-president of finance and administration and chief financial officer of Crown Investments Corporation. He wrote this for the Frontier Centre.