Saskatchewan: What happened to the NDP?

The conservative Saskatchewan Party is almost certain to win next month's provincial election. The NDP can hardly hope to fight back with its current approach.
Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall greets fans at a University of Saskatchewan Huskies football game in August. Photo: Steve Hiscock for Liam Richards Photography

The writ has dropped. There will be a provincial election in Saskatchewan on Nov. 7. Public opinion polls over the past two year suggest that Premier Brad Wall's conservative Saskatchewan Party will win by a landslide over the opposition New Democratic Party, led by Dwain Lingenfelter. The polls also reveal that the provincial Liberal Party is facing total collapse and will likely be replaced as the third party by the Greens.

There are no major issues in the campaign. Wall's government has not been friendly to trade unions but otherwise has been quite moderate. The Saskatchewan economy is doing well compared to other North American jurisdictions. In a province where home ownership stands at 70 per cent, people believe that their wealth has increased with the housing bubble of the past five years. The vote will be a referendum on the two leaders.

The last two public opinion polls showed support for the Saskatchewan Party running at 58 per cent and 63 per cent with the NDP at 30 per cent and 26 per cent. The most recent poll reports that the Sask Party now has around 56 per cent support in both Regina and Saskatoon. If this turns out to be the case, the NDP will suffer it most serious defeat, perhaps falling to the eight seats it held after the 1982 election.

Wall's personal support remains high at over 70 per cent in all the polls. In contrast, support for Lingenfelter stood at only 13 per cent in the most recent poll. Even half of the expected NDP voters stated that they did not want to see him as premier.

The other major development is the collapse of the Liberal Party. In provincial elections since 1991, the Liberals have been a significant factor, winning between 14 per cent and 34 per cent of the vote. It is widely believed that the existence of the Liberals helped the NDP win elections with only around 40 per cent of the popular vote. However, support for the Liberals fell to 9 per cent in the 2007 election. In recent polls, Liberal support has dropped to between 4 per cent and 6 per cent, similar to that of the Green Party.

Ryan Bater, leader of the Liberal Party, recently stated that they may only have 15 candidates nominated and that all their efforts would be put into getting him elected in The Battlefords. But as the writ is being dropped, the Liberals have only nominated Bater. In contrast, the Green Party is close to nominating a full slate.

The other concern is the declining number of people who vote and those who are on the official electoral lists. The 2007 vote in the provincial election represented 53 per cent of those eligible to vote (citizens 18 and older), and many expect that the turnout will fall below 50 per cent this time.

So what has happened in Saskatchewan that has brought about this major change? The political science experts argue that people are much better off financially than they were in the old days of the CCF-NDP and no longer feel the need for a left-wing party. The CCF-NDP was very strong among family farmers, and the decline of the farm population, the growth of big farms, and the expansion of the influence of agribusiness in general has all but eliminated this base of support.

On the other hand, support for the NDP has declined as it moved steadily to the political right during the governments of Roy Romanow and Lorne Calvert (1991-2007). The policy direction they took generally followed the neoliberal agenda set by Grant Devine's Conservative government (1982-91). Lorne Calvert's government radically changed the taxation system, cutting taxes on the highest income earners, small business and corporations, and greatly reduced royalties paid by the large transnational corporations for the extraction and sale of the province's non-renewable natural resources. As research by Paul Gingrich reveals, during the two NDP governments there was a dramatic increase in income inequality in the province.

After the defeat in the 2007 election it was clear to everyone that the NDP needed to go through a renewal process. In 2009 Lorne Calvert stepped down as leader. Key members of the NDP caucus and several important trade unions convinced Dwain Lingenfelter to leave Nexen Corporation in Calgary and seek the leadership. However, Lingenfelter was the Deputy Leader of the NDP under Roy Romanow and played a very key role in pushing the party to adopt the business-friendly neoliberal agenda. He represented the old order. If the international financial crisis of 2008-11 has demonstrated anything, it is the failure of the neoliberal agenda of the unregulated free market and free trade.

In the 2009 leadership race there were two other candidates, Yens Pederson and Ryan Meili. They both represented a youth movement, had a strong commitment to restore the NDP's commitment to social justice, and wanted to seriously address key environmental issues. Not only did the win by Lingenfelter postpone this process by four years, it exposed the party to a devastating electoral defeat.

John W. Warnock is a Regina political economist and author.

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