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Saskatchewan NDP's 'play it safe' approach fails in provincial election

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Sask. NDP Leader Ryan Meili on the campaign trail earlier this month. Image: Ryan Meili/Twitter

There was a lot at stake for the NDP Opposition in Saskatchewan's October 26, 2020 election. They held only 13 seats to the 46 held by the Saskatchewan party and their support was less than half. They were even losing some ground in the core urban areas.

The Sask. party is currently elected or leading in 48 seats, with the NDP at 13. But with a few seats still too close to call, the final distribution could change.

As in previous elections, the NDP "strategists" chose to take the low, so-called "safe" road and discourage discussion of the climate crisis or Saskatchewan having the country's highest per-capita carbon emissions. The leaders' debate, with no mention of climate, was in stark contrast to the B.C. one, which rationally discussed carbon pricing.

The Saskatchewan debate was also in sharp contrast to the last U.S. presidential debate where Democrat Joe Biden was forthright that the climate crisis was "an existential threat" and that there had to be a quick transition away from fossil fuels. 

One first-time NDP candidate in inner city Regina, Meara Conway, even had to take down a 2018 Facebook post opposing the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion (TMX), even though the federal and B.C. NDP have steadily opposed this tar sands pipeline. 

There were no nuances when NDP Leader Ryan Meili stated provincial party policy: the NDP supported energy workers and getting our resources to market, period! With a disturbingly low voter turnout, Conway kept this traditionally social democratic riding.

Fourth leader in four elections

The NDP went into this election with yet another new leader, the fourth in four elections. After running second in 2009 and 2013, Meili finally won the job in 2018, with 55 per cent support over rival Trent Wotherspoon. It will be seen as a small victory if Meili holds on to his Saskatoon seat, as the previous two NDP leaders, Cam Broten and Dwain Lingenfelter, lost theirs.

Meili won the leadership largely by recruiting young members. Saskatchewan has more millennials than baby boomers, so appealing to this upcoming generation would seem a good long-term coalition-building strategy. 

Millennials, however, are deeply concerned about both climate and inequality -- the realities staring them in the face. Yet the Sask. NDP consistently turns its head from the challenges that the climate crisis poses for the resource dependent Saskatchewan economy, which past NDP governments, along with the Sask. party, helped to build.

The wider public may end up a little perplexed about the election outcome. An Angus Reid poll taken just before October 26 showed that "half of voters are looking for a third option." And also, that "almost half also feel the Sask. party majorities have been too large."

NDP support did seem to be building back. One poll had them at 33 per cent after they entered the campaign at 28 per cent

Meili's performance debating Premier Scott Moe, who sometimes stumbles on his words, was above expectation. He was passionate about the minimum wage and about the suicide crisis among northern Indigenous youth. 

There was, however, no drilling down on any realities. No mention that Saskatchewan has the highest domestic homicide and Indigenous incarceration rate of any province, and Canada's highest per-capita carbon footprint.

Meili had several chances to push back on the Sask. party's neo-liberal, self-regulation, COVID "strategy." Saskatchewan's infection rate is steadily rising. 

Rural areas just across the border are being hit especially hard. Manitoba's cases are rising at an alarming rate. The Johns Hopkins database shows North and South Dakota with the highest per capita spread in the U.S. Rural libertarianism remains a recipe for disaster.

The Sask. party and NDP seem to think that our borders make us special, and that we are a "distinct society." We are not! In a pandemic, with climate change and a revolution in energy infrastructures underway, borders and parochial identities are overrated. 

If the Democrats take back the White House, the Keystone pipeline will again go on the chopping block. I suspect that, with his serious carbon addiction, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney privately hopes for a Trump victory. What do the Sask. NDP stalwarts really want? 

Backstories are revealing

Premier Scott Moe maintained his lead for "personal popularity," even though it was revealed during the campaign that he had been involved in a car accident in 1997, in which Jo-Anne Balog was killed. And that in 1994, he was charged with impaired driving and leaving the scene of an accident. The charges were stayed. 

The ruling Sask. party, however, could always count on its war chest to bang away at its messaging: that they would keep trade growing, solve the fiscal problem they created and continue to fight the evil carbon tax.

The Sask. party went into the election with $2 million more than the opposition NDP. $1.2 million of its $3.4 million war-chest came from a diversity of "corporate donors," several across the Alberta border.

The NDP also faced serious problems. Meili would not sign the papers of long-time NDPer Sandra Morin, who was nominated in a Regina riding. She was MLA from 2003-2011, in the Lorne Calvert NDP cabinet and a supporter of Trent Wotherspoon. 

Claiming that the NDP had become a one-man party, she ran as an independent but came third. Her votes combined with those of Meili's hand-picked candidate totalled more than the victorious Sask. party.

Meili, however, quickly signed the nomination papers for rural candidate Thera Nordal. The NDP has not won any rural seats since the Sask. party formed in 1997 to end the vote splitting that helped the NDP get power. The Regina Leader Post had said that the Last Mountain-Touchwood riding was one to watch and Nordal told me she thought a split vote might work to her advantage. But she lost to the Sask. party, with only 25 per cent of the vote, and the smaller parties took only about 800 votes combined.

Even with half the voters looking for a third option, there was no significant vote-splitting. The total provincial votes cast for the smaller parties was just over seven per cent, just as the polls predicted. But the Buffalo party (Wexit) and the Greens now both lay claim to be Saskatchewan's third party. 

The Western "separatists" got nearly three per cent of the vote, but they received as much as 20 per cent in some of the 17 ridings where they ran. In his victory speech, Scott Moe appealed to them as he defended pipelines and railed against the carbon tax. 

The Greens received below three per cent but had slightly higher support in a few ridings. If you compare their three per cent to the B.C. Greens getting 15 per cent, and the Saskatchewan NDP losing so badly while the B.C. NDP had such a huge victory, you can see what is occurring in carbon-blind Saskatchewan.

Historical perspective needed

This was clearly a landslide victory for the Sask. party. It is their fourth majority victory in a row, which rivals the NDP's predecessor, the CCF. Meili's NDP ended up with a record low 29 per cent of support. Even when it had its smallest caucus ever, of only nine MLAs after the 1982 defeat, the NDP carried nearly 38 per cent of the popular vote.

There was a record 185,000 advance voters. But with the pandemic and 25 per cent remaining undecided, voter turnout could fall lower than the 2016 election. Alienation, marginalization and fragmentation and potentially shifting political sands are clearly at play. 

There was a rumour that rural NDP candidate Thera Nordal had been a member of the federal Conservatives when Scheer was elected leader, just prior to her "conversion." She confirmed that this was true. The right of everyone to change parties should always be respected, however, going from a Scheer supporter to an NDP MLA is hard to fathom. 

Nordal was active in opposing the Chinese-owned, Yancoal potash solution mine near her farm home north of Regina. While the NDP was glad to see the Sask. party facing this atypically stiff rural opposition, and to accept her as a candidate, it is unlikely that an NDP government would ever oppose any such resource extraction project.

The provincial party has consistently been out of step with the federal NDP over everything from uranium mining to bitumen pipelines. The party's main election material didn't highlight any ecological issues that would have appealed to some rural people, such as the need to regulate agricultural drainage to protect habitats and watersheds. 

When I spoke to Nordal about this, she insisted the NDP's hesitation was because of the polls and also, because of public apathy. When I pressed on, she said "you have to get elected before you can do anything," a mantra I have heard many times over the decades. 

Had the CCF acted in this evasive manner we might never have won Medicare. After their election in 1944, the CCF moved systematically to establish universal hospital insurance, which took from 1947-1954.

Support grew as people realized what this meant for their personal and family security. It was not until 1960 that the CCF-NDP launched its campaign to actually establish universal medical insurance. And without the grassroots community clinic movement, the NDP cabinet might have collapsed during the doctors' strike.

The party went on to lose the 1964 election to a united political backlash under the Thatcher Liberals. Through thick and thin, however, the CCF never stopped talking about Medicare, which, for the most part, the health-care pioneers achieved.

Polling today shows shifting public opinion on energy and climate, on which the NDP could build. A Vote Compass survey of Saskatchewan residents just prior to the election found that not only did 70 per cent want more renewable energy, but 58 per cent wanted more action to reduce greenhouse gases. 

Yet climate was never really discussed. The politicians and mainstream media, including Postmedia and the CBC, have mirrored each other in this neglect.

The Sask. NDP clearly does not yet know how to message about these grave matters. Their timid policies on renewable energy, energy efficiency and wetland protection were one-dimensional and not framed within the broader context of the global climate crisis. 

Were there a stronger Green party that threatened to take votes from the NDP, you might see more in-depth policy and more insight about our collective interdependence with the health of the natural world.

Pressing the restart button

The Saskatchewan NDP has had the opportunity to press the restart button and commit to building a progressive coalition. For a short period in 2017, its voter support was equal to that of the Sask. party, which had dropped to near 40 per cent. 

Brad Wall had called the 2016 election without tabling a budget. Soon after his big victory, the province's growing deficit and massive debt was revealed. There was already growing distrust over corrupt mega-spending for mega-projects. The Saskatchewan Transportation Company (STC), on which rural and northern people depended, was one casualty. So was Brad Wall, who soon resigned.

The party might have been able to start building back some solid support, had it been ready with a coherent alternative vision that honestly faced the challenges of the climate crisis for our carbon-intensive economy, and laid out a just transition for working people. 

But no, the party was again in a leadership race, with strategists holding on to the fateful dreamworld of a return to power built on the failings of the right-wing government. The highly partisan, "they blew the resource boom" wasn't going to inspire anyone. NDP support quickly fell back to where it had been. 

The only way to build a progressive coalition big enough to outvote the united right is to do it. Even in this wasteland of conservative, fossil-fuel politics, which at times seems to be in a different country, the future is not going to look like the past.

No one says this will be easy. When the Sask. party held its 2018 leadership convention to replace Brad Wall, it had just over 27,000 members. This wasn't close to the more than 60,000 members in the NDP during the 1962 Medicare crisis. Or even to the 46,000 NDP members still reported in 1991. But it was much larger than the 8,000 NDP members left in 2012. 

If the NDP ever wants to govern Saskatchewan again it will have to start to take the "high road," and to honestly and assertively build a new coalition that can embrace the future. Putting "people first" isn't going to ring true without confronting the deeper crisis head on. 

Perhaps by keeping the party from slipping into complete oblivion, Meili and his supporters may have provided an interlude to allow the party to embark on this new path before it is too late. Based on all the lost opportunities, and the conditioned political habits over recent decades, I would not hold my breath.

Editor's note, October 29, 2020: A previous version of this story cited outdated election result data, and suggested that the Saskatchewan party had won or were leading in 49 seats to the NDP's 12. In fact, at the time this story was published, the Saskatchewan party had won or were leading in 48 seats, to the NDP's 13. 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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