Maybe Premier Brad Wall’s Saskatchewan Party government was not completely wrong-headed in its 2017-18 budget decision to drop the government-owned bus company that’s lost money for 38 straight years.
For all the truly sad stories this week of inconvenience and hardship people faced due to the closure of the 70-year entity, is it really any worse than closing schools or 52 rural hospitals?
Moreover, the simple reality is that STC was a money-loser for four consecutive different political administrations, strictly because of changing rural demographics.
And STC was never nimble enough to adjust … or at least, past governments never allowed it to do much more than tinker with route closures, insisting that the Crown corporation run empty oversized passenger buses driven by well-compensated drivers. Even its foray into parcel services couldn’t subsidize the costly core business of moving people in this way.
For the NDP Opposition to now say it would restore STC passenger service to anything close to what it once was seems nonsense in the context of any prospective governing party addressing a debt scheduled to hit $18 billion by the end of this budget year.
Wall’s administration made a tough choice — arguably politically courageous, given it’s their own rural base that would seem most impacted.
But this is where it gets interesting. Could the STC closure result in a catalytic shift in Saskatchewan politics, as rural people get madder and madder about this decision?
Of course, this would seem a bit of a stretch … but maybe less of a stretch after last week’s rather shocking Mainstreet/Postmedia poll showing Wall’s Sask. Party nine percentage points behind the NDP and — get this — tied at 46 per cent among voters outside Regina and Saskatoon.
The latter polling number includes voters in Moose Jaw, Prince Albert and the north, where the NDP has sizeable support. Even so, that the Sask. Party — which garnered three out of every four rural votes in the general election just 14 months ago — could now be tied with the NDP in the “rest of Saskatchewan” suggests one of three things: (a) the poll is dead wrong; (b) the poll is somewhat wrong, but there has been somewhat of a shift, or (c) the poll is right and we are seeing the beginnings of a seismic shift.
Even the middle scenario would be rather shocking, although not completely illogical.
While it appears most of the STC (and other “Stop the cuts”) protests have come from the cities, so have many of the smug suggestions that rural Saskatchewan can just rely on private entrepreneurs/good ol’ community co-operation to replace STC.
It’s not always about the initial noise. Once past the sit-in protests on the last STC bus and all the pot and pan banging we heard at Wall’s Sask. Party fundraiser in Regina on Thursday night, the reality now sets in for rural people.
Sure, three-quarters of them voted for Wall last election, but that doesn’t make rural Saskatchewan completely homogeneous.
There are poor, First Nations people from reserves who don’t own cars (although the NDP and others suggesting STC’s demise endangers the lives of young, indigenous women do so without evidence, and for what seems dramatic effect).
There are seniors and the disabled who can’t drive. And there are farmers and rural businesses in needs of parts and packages — all too aware of the added costs and difficulties that accompany STC’s shuttering.
Maybe some enterprising entrepreneurs can make a business case, at least on the parcel side of the business. But it would seem unlikely anyone can do so without charging a premium that rural people will view as gouging.
Maybe rural farmers and businesses are partial to Brad Wall’s philosophy, but most in rural Saskatchewan subscribe to the notion that the area of the province that provides the resource wealth needs and deserves such subsidization.
There is big, collective concern out there, and rural people don’t forget. Or at least, they haven’t forgotten the closure of 52 rural hospitals 24 years ago.
One wonders if STC’s closure may now be a similar political landmark.
Murray Mandryk is the political columnist for the Regina Leader-Post.