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Saskatchewan's popular Premier Brad Wall picked as good a time as any to go

Canada's first ministers might be happy to see the back of Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall. After all, for much of his decade-long reign in office, he was proclaimed the most popular provincial leader in the country, with approval numbers that were off the charts.

At national conferences, his provincial counterparts often chided him, good-naturedly, about his covetous run of support.

As keen and astute a politician as there is in this country, Mr. Wall undoubtedly sensed that changing. That certainly is the reason behind his somewhat unexpected announcement Thursday that he is retiring from politics. He wanted to go out, if not on top, then at least not dragging along the bottom.

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Read more: Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall retiring from politics

The 51-year-old Mr. Wall broke the news in a video he posted on Facebook. In it, he talked about the record job numbers the province witnessed during his time as Premier. (He won't officially resign until after the party chooses a replacement). He talked about the envious debt-to-GDP numbers the province had put up over that period. Unquestionably, there is a lot for which Mr. Wall can be proud. There is a reason people in Saskatchewan liked him so much.

He made his province relevant in the national conversation. His supporters took pride in the fact he had become a dominant political voice nationally, emerging as the conservative standard-bearer after Stephen Harper and his party were no longer in power. During his tenure, Mr. Wall fought hard, and loud, for his province's interests.

The Premier did not spend as much time in his statement dwelling on the past several months. Perhaps that's not surprising. Things began to take a turn for the worse when his government unveiled its 2017-18 budget, arguably the most detested of the 10 it tabled under Mr. Wall's leadership. It raised the provincial sales tax and dissolved a bus company, leaving thousands of people stranded for transportation. He liquidated Crown corporations in a desperate bid for cash. He tabled another deficit, with the short-term horizon filled with many more of them.

The downturn in the oil industry didn't just hurt Alberta, it walloped Saskatchewan and its treasury, too.

Those living in rural Saskatchewan always maintained a soft spot for Mr. Wall, and mostly accept budget austerity as the way he had to go with the economy being in the shape it is. Those living in the urban core, however, do not share that view. It is there, in Saskatoon and Regina, among other places, that the NDP has begun to make serious inroads. For an opposition that sensed Mr. Wall was wounded and politically vulnerable, word of his departure is not likely good news.

It will, as the Premier said himself, allow his party and government to renew itself. A new leader will have almost three years to distance him or herself from some of Mr. Wall's more detested policies. That said, the new leader won't be able to do much about the province's dismal fiscal reality, for which there are no quick fixes.

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Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley won't miss Mr. Wall, who delighted in denouncing her "socialist" policies at every turn. He is a hard-line conservative partisan and makes no apologies for it.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is unlikely to shed a tear, either, although he was gracious in wishing the Premier the best in his retirement from politics. Mr. Wall was a pickaxe in the Prime Minister's side, particularly when it came to the proposed national carbon tax, which the Premier routinely characterized as reckless and against which he vowed to fight.

Mr. Wall's departure will have a huge impact on the political dynamics of the West, forces that seem to be constantly shifting. With Alberta's new United Conservative Party far ahead of the governing NDP in every poll, some were imagining a day when former federal cabinet minister Jason Kenney was calling the shots in his province, with his ideological soulmate in charge in Saskatchewan – both taking turns tweaking the Liberal Party noses in Ottawa.

It was a scenario I'm sure made Mr. Trudeau nauseous in anticipation.

Well, that won't happen now. And we don't know, of course, if Mr. Kenney will be successful in his bid to lead the UCP anyway. Regardless, small-c Western conservatives are going to miss Mr. Wall's leadership on a range of issues.

No politician's career is perfect, especially a Premier who has run a province for 10-plus years. However, Mr. Wall likely picked as good a time as any to go, when the positive memories of his time in office far outweigh the negative ones.

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Video: Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall calls retirement a chance for renewal (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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