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Can the Saskatchewan NDP catch up with the future?

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Sask. NDP Leader Ryan Meili gives a press briefing in the lead up to the province's 2020 election. Image: Ryan Meili/Twitter

Saskatchewan is no longer the province that gave Canada Medicare. The co-operative spirit among ethnically diverse settlers, sometimes called "agrarian socialism," which led to public utilities and hospital, automobile and medical insurance, is pretty much gone. 

Saskatchewan is now known as an "open for business" resource-exporting province, a smaller version of Alberta perhaps soon to encounter its colonial legacy. Its gift to the rest of Canada now is the highest per-capita carbon emissions of any province.

And the Saskatchewan NDP clearly doesn't know quite what to do.

The Saskatchewan party is now the natural governing party. And the NDP will not be able to bounce back, as it did when it replaced the Thatcher Liberals in 1971 or the Devine Conservatives in 1991. Waiting in the wings for a crash in the commodity market, with a shrinking voter base and an inclination to duck some of the most urgent issues, simply won't work.

With the fixed-term, October 26, 2020 provincial election coming, the Sask. party is positioned to enter its fourth term of office, which will equal the span of government headed by Medicare champion Tommy Douglas.

Saskatchewan Party's success story

The success of the Sask. party strategy must be understood. It stridently took the name of our province and turned it into its brand. The only other close example would be the separatist Parti Québécois. An "Alberta party" never got off the ground.

Liberal and Conservative MLAs joined hands to stop vote-splitting, which helped CCF-NDP governments get elected. But more important for understanding what happened here, these MLAs were united by adamant support for free trade, deregulation and privatization; the fundamentals of "neoliberalism." 

They were far ahead of Stephen Harper, who brought the Reform and Progressive Conservative parties into a new neoliberal party that hasn't been as successful federally. After the 2019 federal election, the non-progressive Conservatives under now-departed leader Andrew Scheer looked like a reborn Reform party.

But, after the Sask. party formed in 1997, the NDP continued to lose rural support, then suburban, and, based on recent polls, they are now losing urban support. Though the margin of support declines with educational level, the Sask. party leads the NDP among high school, college and university graduates. 

The NDP vote has continued to slide, consistently below one-third of decided voters. In the latest EKOS poll, the Sask. party had 60 per cent to only 28 per cent NDP support. Twenty-four per cent remained undecided. It is highly unlikely the NDP will inspire the undecided. 

NDP representation in the legislature is about half of what it would be with proportionate representation (PR). The prairie social-democratic voice is shrinking and sometimes it seems that the issues the small NDP caucus is willing to talk about are shrinking as well.

"People first" or "planet first"

I was informed by a candidate during the 2016 election campaign with Cam Broten as NDP leader, that candidates were told not to discuss "carbon." In the buildup to the 2020 election, the word "climate" is noticeably missing in the NDP's door-to-door leaflets.

The Saskatchewan NDP ducks the global crisis by sticking to old clichés, like putting "people first." They might consider reviving the old left slogan "people, not profits," for at least this might expose the greed and inequality of the neoliberal era in which we have been living. 

All parties put some "people first." 

Of course, smaller class sizes and better access to health care matter; they matter to me, with grandchildren going back to school or daycare, and as an elder with no reliable continuity of medical care in the province that established universal health care. And, after the Sask. party demolished the Saskatchewan Transportation Corporation, there are no buses for rural seniors or people without cars to travel to medical appointments.

However, standing up for education and health care won't turn the electoral tide. There are much bigger forces at play, which are knocking at our door.

We now breathe contaminated air from unprecedented climate fires in California, Washington and Oregon. COVID-19 is surging in the rural, laissez-faire, pro-Trump states just across the U.S. border. 

It would perhaps be better for the NDP to say "planet first" if it wanted to expose the dead ends and dangers of the Sask. party and start promoting alternatives that could take us to a different future.

Trump's capture of the U.S. Republican party and the Brexiteers' capture of Britain's Conservatives reflect reactionary blowback from the failings of neoliberal globalization. But trying to restore a mythic past that never really existed will just create more confusion, disinformation and polarization. And we don't need more of that.

A coalition of transformation, however, is on the horizon. The pandemic is restoring some urgently needed historical attention span. We see support growing for essential, precarious and migrant workers; for climate action and a green and just recovery; for anti-racist reform; for new supply chains and regional food security, along with a guaranteed livable income. These need to continue to converge. The conversation is long overdue.  

The NDP's neoliberal legacy

So, with a provincial election in the offing, why isn't the Saskatchewan NDP exposing the failings of neoliberalism and boldly proposing coherent, progressive alternatives? 

Well, for one thing, the Saskatchewan NDP heavily bought into neoliberalism. 

The Romanow NDP (1991-2001) completely bought in; in 1996 it set up the Sask Trade and Export Partnership or STEP to expand "free trade" of agribusiness products. The total value of all Saskatchewan's exports, including mineral non-renewables, was then $9.3 billion. By 2014, agricultural exports, alone, were valued at $13.9 billion.

When the Sask. party took power in 2007 total exports were valued at $19.8 billion and these continued to grow to $35.4 billion in 2014, before the start of the commodity crash. Half of this was just from two commodities, crude oil ($13.2 billion) and potash ($4.9 billion). And half of all exports, $22.7 billion, went directly to the U.S. under NAFTA.

The neoliberal infrastructure was pretty much in place when the Sask. party took over management, which it did without the underlying ambivalences that the NDP base has felt about this new political-economic direction. There was a quiet joke in the 1970s that the NDP had become the "Nuclear Development Party."

But the harm from free trade, deregulation and privatization is there for anyone who wants to see it. There has been no general trickle down of benefits to the wider population. If anything, the poverty rate increased through the resource boom years. It has, for the most part, been private profit gouging, with the public paying a big price. 

Our economy is more locked into the trade of toxic commodities, especially with the U.S., making it hard to envisage a more sustainable future. Whether NDP or Sask party governments, it has been "jobs and profits at any cost."

The Saskatchewan NDP talks a lot about protecting our Crowns. But it doesn't mention what happened to the NDP's star Crowns in the resource sector: the Sask. Mining Development Corp. (SMDC), Potash Corp. of Sask. and Sask. Oil, all created in the early 1970s. 

Some call these the "golden years" of Saskatchewan's social democracy. But huge public investments, including some redirected from lucrative gas, oil and potash revenues, went into expanding the uranium industry under the Blakeney NDP (1971-82). By the end of its final term its own heritage fund was empty. 

NDP technocrats naively bought into the "nuclear renaissance" promoted by the industry. They spread misinformation that growing global demand for Saskatchewan uranium was going to provide unfathomable government revenues to compensate for major federal transfer cuts, that were themselves part of the neoliberal, off-loading agenda. These gargantuan revenues were going to expand the blessed welfare state. And the uranium boom was going to jump-start northern development and lift Indigenous people out of their colonial poverty.

It never happened. At the end of the uranium boom the north was still the second-poorest northern region in the country.

NDP true-believers were blinded by flawed projections. In 1977 the technocrats predicted that by 1983 the uranium revenues would be between $112 to $224 million. The actual revenues were $29 million. 

Instead of corporate joint ventures trickling wealth down for a drug, dental, childcare or home-care plan, we ended up with a hugely profitable uranium multinational, Cameco. And, in our north, amongst the highest volume of radioactive tailings anywhere on the planet. 

Though the privatized PotashCorp kept a Saskatchewan headquarters, it quickly entered into global corporate merging, becoming Nutrien in 2018. Sask. Oil ended up in the private sector, helping create even more emissions in the deregulated political environment. The CEOs of these once public Crowns are among the highest earners in Canada.

Massive environmental impacts

The Saskatchewan NDP completely rejected the opportunity to become a "little Norway," and use its revenues to fund the conversion to renewables and sustainability.

Instead of phasing out coal-fired electrical plants, the NDP government elected after Calvert became leader (2003-07) launched costly carbon capture to create "clean coal." The Sask. party enthusiastically took up this mantle and persists trying to salvage the nuclear industry, now promoting small modular nuclear reactors. NDP Leader Ryan Meili has distanced himself from this asinine way to reduce carbon. 

However, the NDP has been accused of hypocrisy, opposing nuclear power plants here, while expanding uranium mining in the north that provide fuel for nuclear plants elsewhere. The party often seems on the defensive: not able to openly discuss concerns about the climate crisis without being attacked as closet supporters of Trudeau's carbon tax. The best defense is always an offense, but the NDP seems asleep at the wheel.

If they want to win new votes they have to clearly stand up on the urgent issues. Meili talks a lot about creating a "healthy economy." But he needs to point out that this doesn't mean a profitable stock market, but an economy that doesn't pollute watersheds, destroy habitats and undermine environmental health.

The neoliberal development model inherited from past NDP governments was not only wrongheaded economically and socially, but also environmentally. At present, Saskatchewan has far less wind and solar energy feeding into its grid, proportionate to its size, than our neighbor Alberta.

Deregulation has also had disastrous environmental effects. Deregulation of agricultural drainage has been rampant, especially with increasing climate-related flooding. Our vulnerable wetland habitats and waterways, and the other creatures that also depend on them, continue to bear the burdens of toxic chemicals. 

In spite of widespread public support for the Crown utilities, these continue to be carved up and privatized, mostly unreported and therefore under the political radar. For instance, Peak Energy -- owned by North Dakota companies that are fully in the private, deregulated energy market -- is steadily privatizing the natural gas retail market throughout southern Saskatchewan.

The pandemic has exposed the deadly effects of deregulation and privatization of long-term care homes. Luckily, we have had some time to prepare for when COVID is quite likely to hit Saskatchewan with full force. 

It is not surprising that in a recent poll Saskatchewan had the highest percentage (45 per cent) that opposed mandatory mask use to slow the spread of COVID-19. In today's Saskatchewan you'd hardly know that the CCF-NDP was such a pioneer in public health. However, the Saskatchewan NDP has never been a pioneer in environmental health.

The emerging coalition of transformation will not grow into a political force out of any blame game. But there will need to be some solid reckoning about how Saskatchewan evolved from Medicare to having the country’s highest carbon footprint. And, to add to this legacy it has one of the country's highest rates of incarceration of Indigenous people and Canada's highest domestic violence rate

At present the Green party is not sufficiently rooted in the province to be a realistic alternative vehicle for this needed progressive convergence. However, if the Saskatchewan NDP does not openly reevaluate its past and explicitly shift towards the emerging transformative coalition, it could end up on the trash heap of history.

A holding action to retain their small legislative caucus in the coming provincial election will not suffice.  

Editor's note, October 2, 2020: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Cam Broten led the Saskatchewan NDP in the 2011 election. In fact he led the party in the 2016 election. The story has been corrected.

Author-activist Jim Harding is a retired professor of environmental and justice studies. He was a delegate to the NDP founding convention in Ottawa in 1961 and ran for the federal NDP in Saskatoon in 1963, before turning his full attention to extra-parliamentary activism. He was a senior civil servant in addictions and pharmaceutics research and policy in the later part of the Blakeney government. He has written or edited several books on the limits of social democracy in Canada, including The NDP Government in Saskatchewan during the Blakeney Years (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1995), Saskatchewan Uranium and the Global Nuclear System (Fernwood, 2007), and Moving Beyond Neo-Liberalism in Saskatchewan (Crows Nest, 2018); PDF at: crowsnestecology.wordpress.com. He is a founding director of the Qu'Appelle Valley Environmental Association (go to: QVEA.ca).

Image: Ryan Meili/Twitter

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