Friday, November 16, 2007

The Setback in Saskatchewan

The problem is that the NDP base in Sask. is shrinking. The CCF and early NDP had a strong base in rural Saskatchewan but that is eroded. Calvert did not bring up rural issues such as the Wheat Board because he is not concerned with policy except as it relates to getting elected here and now. He wrote off the rural areas. Wall was a mirror image of those tactics but because he had the rural areas in his pocket. No need to talk agriculture.
The NDP has gone steadily right and also focused on urban voters and has chosen what is in effect a thrid way strategy. Commentators noted that there was little ideological difference between the NDP and the Sask. Party. The NDP has done nothing to reverse the radical Devine sell off of government corporations, indeed it sold its interest in an oil upgrader. Its royalty regime is less progressive than that of Alberta after Stelmach's recent changes.

The setback in Saskatchewan

What progressive Canadians can learn from the 2007 setback in Saskatchewan is that sticking to your base is key.

>by Kyall Glennie
November 16, 2007

Why did the Saskatchewan NDP lose a an election in the midst of an economic boom that most other provinces envy? Why, in that traditional "hot bed of socialism," where the government still owns the telephone company, everyone shops at the co-op and still banks at the credit union, did the voters toss out the NDP?

"It's elementary, my dear Watson," said Holmes.

Voters grew tired, after four terms, of the politics and politicians of the NDP, led by the responsible if not flashy Lorne Calvert, but not of their policies. The NDP was, popularly I might add, cutting tuition fees, increasing minimum wage, decreasing waiting times in hospitals and even introducing the grand ol' idea that prescription drugs should be universally accessible at an affordable price.

To boot, they were fixing the roads, much to the chagrin of rural voters who wanted every reason to kick them from office. Decades of perceived neglect in farming communities has materialized as solid Saskatchewan Party/Conservative support, as the province has finally caught up with the rest of the country and urbanized, albeit slowly.

So, why a change now, in the midst of success for just about everyone, even the farmers? Because it seems promising everything to everyone isn't exactly the best of solutions. And the BC NDP, among others, should pay attention to these failings.

The NDP in Saskatchewan cut corporate taxes to the tune of $190 million a year, in an economy that was already steaming hot because of oil royalties and market-friendly policies in uranium, potash, and natural gas – the real exports of the new Saskatchewan economy. (Chances are your bread loaves no longer contain Saskatchewan durum wheat – but your gas tank more than likely has some blended ethanol gasoline from the easy-to-draw-hard-to-spell province).

How many votes outside of the NDP's working class base did those tax cuts gain? Probably about as many Grey Cups as the Saskatchewan Roughriders have managed to win. (That's two, by the way, in 1966 and 1989).

The NDP also failed to make the environment the issue that it is across the rest of Canada, waiting instead for the population to get with the times. Indeed, the NDP fumbled to explain exactly what was their "green strategy." They might have launched a full-frontal attack on carbon emissions from the bloated oil and gas sector and a grain transportation system heavily reliant not on rail but on trucks, but instead the environment slipped away as a wedge issue because no one bought their timid approach.

The Saskatchewan Party, who have spent years denying global warming and fighting the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol along with their Conservative brothers and sisters in Ottawa, simply waited out the NDP's failure to make it a coffee row conservation.

A scary thought on the minds of Saskatchewan families is losing young people to other provinces. The NDP, however, did not reduce those worries with their post-secondary funding policy. Not until tuition fees in Saskatchewan soared to the 3rd highest in the country did the NDP finally freeze them and dump ample cash into the universities to keep them running smoothly, finally defeating the misguided notion that a tuition freeze will hurt education.

The NDP, let it be said, accomplished great things during their terms in office. To downplay otherwise the $100 million reinvestment in the province's poorest areas of the inner cities, for example, would be a travesty only to be rivaled by the pathetically little effort the Saskatchewan Party government is going to make on poverty reduction.

However, problems still exist. Obesity is rampant in Saskatchewan, especially in northern and rural communities. Fighting income disparity, growing even under the NDP thanks no doubt to oil jobs, is not on the radar of right-wingers like Premier-elect Brad Wall. Neither are the heightened racial tensions between the province's First Nations and M├ętis peoples and the settler population.

What progressive Canadians can learn from the 2007 setback in Saskatchewan is that sticking to your base is key. Doing the right thing, no matter the cost, is always the best policy, and trying to win votes from the business community is likely the most laughable attempt at vote-buying one can imagine.

The impact of corporate tax reduction on the economy will be minimal compared to, say, the full elimination of tuition fees at the universities and colleges, which would encourage even greater labour market participation, and would have come in with roughly the same sticker price – with enough leftover to maybe throw in a few social housing units as a bonus.

The BC NDP, and other provincial parties, should take note: stick to your base, stick to your guns, and go forward. Or else you end up with a government like Wall's Saskatchewan Party with a policy document decorated with little but streamers and funny hats.

Kyall Glennie is a M.A. candidate in Political Science at Simon Fraser University and the former Director of Research to NDP

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