By the time you read this, Regina’s great sewage treatment plant referendum will be over — an issue that most of you have little reason to care about.
There again, what’s behind this municipal debate will resonate with all Saskatchewan people. After all, it’s been at the heart of Saskatchewan politics for a quarter century now … yet it still seems rather unresolved.
For those of you outside the provincial capital, I will mercifully spare you from details over which method of building and running this sewer treatment plant is better, although there’s about 58 million reasons why that shouldn’t be much of a debate at all.
The City of Regina was offered by the federal Conservative government $58.5 million for the new sewage treatment plan, under the condition that it would be built as a public-private partnership (P3). As such, it would be built and run by a private entity, although still owned by the city.
The risk to city taxpayers is that private projects must have a built-in profit margin and it’s slightly more expensive for private companies to borrow money than municipal corporations. The benefit, however, is that most bid-and-build models of public projects wind up over budget and may be more expensive to run because of public sector salaries.
However, that $58.5 million upfront should surely have been the tipping point — a phenomenal federal contribution to Regina when one considers that Ottawa was not willing to put in a single dime (through P3s or any other sort of funding) to the new football stadium.
Yet, the notion of a conservative-minded government enticing the city to build with this sewage treatment plant with a privatized component has been the very reason why Reginans are suddenly so passionate over sewage treatment.
The rest of the province may likely recognize his age-old fight, too.
Certainly, the Regina sewage treatment plant fight was fuelled by the fact that one side was supported by big union interests trying to protect public sector jobs and the other side was supported by private business.
But the question of how much private or public involvement is the right amount has gone to the core of all major Saskatchewan political debate for decades now. In fact, no province has been quite so defined by that question as Saskatchewan.
About 50 years ago, it took the form of whether the public should takeover payment of private medicine and doctor’s services through Medicare.
Less than 40 years ago, it was about the public entry into the potash mining industry through the creation of the Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan. Other government owned resource companies like SaskOil and the Saskatchewan Mining Development Corp. (SMDC) were also prominent at the time.
A quarter century ago it was about the privatization of PCS and SaskOil and SMDC. However, when the Grant Devine Progressive Conservative government tried to also privatize Saskatchewan’s natural gas utility, the battle over SaskEnergy became the single biggest political fight since medicare.
Understanding people’s passionate for this debate, Premier Brad Wall’s Saskatchewan Party government has been careful to only dabble in this area. It has contracted out hospital laundry services and allowed the building of full-service private liquor stores to compete with existing public liquor stores in the cities.
Wall’s former PC party was annihilated over the privatization issue. And even his Sask. Party struggled to establish a political foothold until it promised it would not privatize anything major.
That is why the Regina sewage treatment fight has become such a hot political issue. P3s might very well be the next battleground in this age-old fight. Certainly, the public unions who have spent thousands of dollars on this referendum think so.
So, really, it hasn’t just been a silly fight over sewage.
In Saskatchewan, such fights are always about that much broader issue.
Murray Mandryk has been covering provincial politics for over 22 years.