Help from premier's office for Sask. Party candidate creates impression of 'favouritism': political expert

After a Saskatchewan Party leadership candidate got some help from the premier's office on a topic that later came up in a leadership debate, a public policy expert is saying it's a problem if the premier's office is accused of taking sides in the race.

'It's really not very appropriate' for premier's office to provide information to leadership candidate

Accusations Sask. Party leadership candidate Alanna Koch got information from the premier's office before a debate 'further the impression that she is the preferred candidate of the party elite,' says the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy's Ken Rasmussen. (Mike Zartler/CBC)

A public policy expert says revelations a Saskatchewan Party leadership candidate got some help from the premier's office on a topic that later came up in a debate may create a problematic impression of "favouritism" in the race to replace Brad Wall.

Candidate Alanna Koch's campaign asked the premier's office for information about nurse practitioners ahead of a Sask. Party leadership debate on Nov. 30. A question on the topic later came up at the Weyburn debate.

"Her opponents are going to make as much as they can about this. It does further the impression that she is the preferred candidate of the party elite, the establishment," said Ken Rasmussen, a professor at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Regina.

After the Nov. 30 debate, three leadership candidates signed a letter of complaint to the Saskatchewan Party raising their concerns that one candidate was leaked questions for the debate. The party's leadership election organizing committee is currently investigating the complaint.

Since the accusations were brought forward, the premier's executive council said it made some inquiries on behalf of one of the candidates, and Koch's campaign confirmed they had made the request.

Three candidates wrote a letter to the Saskatchewan Party raising concerns that one candidate was leaked debate questions prior to the Nov. 30 debate in Weyburn. (Adam Hunter/CBC)

Perception problem

Rasmussen said that Premier Brad Wall promised he and the executive council would remain neutral in the race to replace him as party leader, and that all candidates would be treated equally.

The professor said that while it may have been a coincidence that the nurse practitioner topic came up in the debate, it does create a perception problem.

"It does seem that there has been some favouritism," said Rasmussen.

Alanna Koch's campaign says it asked the premier's office for information about nurse practitioners, but denies knowing the topic would be raised in the debate. (Brandon Harder/CBC)

He said the executive council is the "central node for making decisions," and that's why it's problematic for it to provide information to candidates.

"It's really not very appropriate for them to be seen providing information to one particular candidate because it is the place in which major decisions — both bureaucratic and political — get made."

Rasmussen said that while there's nothing constitutionally or legally that prevents that from happening, it could impact the perceptions of party members, and ultimately voters, in the next general election.

'Distracting for the race'

Joe Garcea, a professor in political studies at the University of Saskatchewan, also thinks the issue could be a problem for the party.

"It's been distracting for the race and depending on the outcome of the internal investigation, it could impact the race," said Garcea.

"I think it's an unfortunate situation for them. They're going to have to manage it, and it's getting more attention than the messages of the leadership candidates."

Joe Garcea is a faculty member in the department of political studies at the University of Saskatchewan. (University of Saskatchewan)

Garcea hopes more clarity on the role of the premier's executive council will come from this situation, and that the internal investigation will help to clarify protocols and practices.

"If there are any voids that need to be filled, hopefully they'll fill them in with new protocols and policies."

Two members of the leadership election organizing committee investigating the debate incident are also both in executive council in the premier's office, but they have since stepped back from any discussion on the debate investigation.

Leadership race 'gets more interesting'

Rasmussen said it's unusual in Canadian politics to see a premier move on halfway through a term and for someone else to take over as premier.

"This is unusual and it usually doesn't end well, frankly," he said.

Garcea said he thinks the leadership race has become more interesting than he expected.

"What looked like at the start was going to be a coronation, now it looks like a real contest," he said.

"There are several people who seem to be potential contenders and we won't even know who's going to still be standing as a candidate as that leadership vote emerges in January."

For Rasmussen, Rob Clarke's sudden departure from the leadership race — which he announced Wednesday, after entering less than a month ago — has been a strange development.

"It's a very bizarre leadership bid. It didn't make sense to begin with, it doesn't make sense the way it ended."

Former Saskatchewan MP Rob Clarke dropped out of the Saskatchewan Party leadership race less than a month after he entered it. (CBC News)

Clarke had to pay a $25,000 fee to enter the race, $10,000 of which was non-refundable upon entry. He would have been refunded $15,000 had he stayed in the race until the end.

His decision to leave the race and endorse Ken Cheveldayoff means he won't be refunded that money.

"He must have had $25,000 that he wanted to get rid of because that's what it cost him to run this three-week campaign," said Rasmussen.

"It's inexplicable, other than he's hoping to raise his profile, maybe run for the Sask. Party and win, and become a cabinet minister in a Cheveldayoff government. I can't see any other play."

With files from Jill Morgan