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Politics

Sask. NDP call on release of documents detailing potential 2017 SaskTel partial sale

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall says he wants to know how vulnerable SaskTel is as the last provincially-owned telecommunications company.
SaskTel's head office in Regina. File / Global News

The opposition NDP is calling for the release of documents linked to discussions around the sale or third party partnership of SaskTel to be made public.

The party made a freedom of information (FOI) request, seeking information on talks the Crown corporation had with a third party, during the time period the Saskatchewan Party government floated the idea of selling up to 50 per cent of the company.

The government and company did have meetings in the spring of 2017 with “potential partners” but ultimately walked back the idea, which proved to be very unpopular with the general public.

In January 2018 SaskTel told the NDP they would be withholding 12 records included in their FOI request in their entirety. Two records were partially released.

Back in 2019, the NDP received a report from Saskatchewan’s Information and Privacy Commissioner Ronald Kruzeniski, which says SaskTel should release four of the withheld records in their entirety and two additional partial records.

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“The privacy commissioner has uncovered some really troubling information for Saskatchewan people,” NDP finance critic Trent Wotherspoon said.

“We learned through this report the Sask. Party government had struck a secret cabinet committee with a direct mandate to sell off our Crown corporations, up to 50 per cent of our Crown corporations.”

Wotherspoon added the report shows talks of “selling off” SaskTel were much more advanced than discussed publicly. He pointed to comments made by then Economy Minister Jeremy Harrison on May 2, 2017.

During question period, Harrison said: “Mr. Speaker, is that there have been no formal discussions as to what a transaction may or may not look like, and there have been no formal offers. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.”

READ MORE: SaskTel in preliminary talks with companies to form partnership: Duncan

The same day, SaskTel and a third party referred to as “Third Party A” in the report, signed a non-disclosure agreement and a joint defense privileged agreement. The commissioner recommends the full release of both documents.

The other two records the commissioner recommends are released in full and called records 13 and 14, emails between a SaskTel employee and Third Party A, dated May 15, 2017 and May 18, 2017.

In SaskTel’s submissions on why record 13 should not be released, they say “public knowledge of Third Party A’s failure to consummate a deal could impact other negotiations that Third Party A may be having with other parties.” The submission adds a “big part” of Third Party A’s operating strategy involves mergers and acquisitions.

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The report notes that SaskTel and Third Party A have a “wide range” of dealings with each other every year, and it would be hard to imagine releasing Third Party A’s interest in SaskTel publicly as it would harm future negotiations between the two.

In SaskTel’s submissions on record 14, the report says the Crown corporation’s submission says discussed negotiations involved the prospect completing a sale or any future sale. The involved parties were SaskTel and Third Party A.

During his press conference, Wotherspoon said the report also indicates commercial information about SaskTel was shared with Third Party A. Wotherspoon likened this to a potash company sharing commercial information with a Russian competitor.

In a statement, SaskTel said the only commercial information that was shared was already publicly available.

READ MORE: Saskatchewan reconsidering legislation allowing part of a Crown corp to be sold

The company adds: “only preliminary discussions were held with third parties who provided SaskTel with high-level alternatives for partnership and discussions never proceeded to the point where commercial information would be shared with the third parties.”

SaskTel concluded saying they are pleased to see the privacy commissioner agreed they are able to withhold most of the records, due to commercial information contained within. As for the other records, they will review the recommendation to release them over the next 30 days.

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A statement from the provincial government says they have been clear that the government has no intention of privatizing Crown corporations, including SaskTel. Minister responsible for SaskTel Don Morgan said the same thing while delivering the company’s annual report, July 8.

The government statement goes on to accuse the NDP of using fear and misinformation tactics ahead of the 2020 provincial election.