I had a pre-arranged trip out of province just two days after the Sask Party’s pummeling of the NDP. I didn’t take the trip to escape the one-party bubble that seems to be forming here. I went to speak at a Trans-Atlantic Forum on Nuclear Energy and then took side trips to visit family.
But the diversity of views in Ontario and Quebec did rekindle a deeper perspective that was wearing thin as I watched the Sask Party juggernaut win 49 of 58 seats. The overwhelming electoral victory makes perfect sense only in the short term; it presents no long-term viable vision of sustainability. The election reminds me of the car oil filter ad “you can pay me now or pay me later”.
At the Forum I heard energy analysts from Canada, the US and Europe. Only one argued that nuclear energy would fill the gap between growing demand and supply while helping ameliorate the climate crisis. In our post-Fukushima world, with greater cost-effectiveness of, and speedy conversion to, renewables, most thought the argument for nuclear was completely un-compelling.
Many jurisdictions struggle with the new energy reality, but not here! Our election never came close to talking about our huge per capita carbon footprint or how it grows with the expansion of the fossil fuel industries. The closest we got to energy policy was indirectly with the controversy over potash royalties.
The NDP lost big. The Sask Party got the largest percentage of support ever won here (64%), outdoing the 57% Liberal support in 1912. It’s uncommon for governing parties to lose after one term, so Premier Wall’s victory was near certain. But it’s also uncommon for there to be such a loss of support for an opposition party. The NDP went from 20 to 9 seats and from 37% to 32% of the vote. Most telling, it’s the first time a sitting NDP leader lost a seat.
The NDP had such a small caucus in 1982 after the landslide defeat by Grant Devine’s Tories. After Devine’s two-term regime nearly broke the fiscal back of the province, the NDP enjoyed a record four, consecutive terms under Romanow and then Calvert, who then lost to Wall in 2007. The NDP is now left with only northern and old inner-city seats; rural and suburban seats are for now controlled by the ruling Sask Party.
LINGENFELTER ERA OVER
Is this an irreversible sea-change or simply the result of Brad Wall riding the resource boom and the NDP having a very unpopular leader?
Lingenfelter is part of the NDP old-guard, first elected in 1978 and in the legislature until 2000 when he then became an Alberta Oil executive. His recent return to take his “rightful place as Premier in waiting” was akin to Ignatieff’s return to lead the Liberal party. Lingenfelter’s hard-won leadership race left the party ranks deeply split and the Sask Party took advantage of his unpopularity with some very mean-spirited attack ads. Polls showed most decided voters, of all persuasions, didn’t want him as Premier. This view was even strong (25%) among NDP supporters.
Can we conclude that Lingenfelter brought his party down? His confusing narrative on wealth distribution and affordability didn’t gain momentum. His baggage as an oil executive, his past pro-nuclear pronouncements and his association with the old-guard made any credibly message about social justice nearly impossible. He tried to talk about the hardships facing First Nations, renters and how there was more homelessness and increased use of food banks in Wall’s “New Saskatchewan”. But this was drowned out by Walls’s easy rhetoric about staying the course and “moving Saskatchewan forward”, what the Globe and Mail referred to as Wall’s “austerity pledge” and “bare bones vision”.
Also, remember it was the Romanow NDP with Lingenfelter as Deputy Leader that made the shift to a Tony Blair-like “New Labour” perspective, stressing wealth creation over distribution or social justice. Social democratic parties have been slow to catch on to the growing inequality gap, what the occupy movement calls the 99% and the 1%.
While Sask Party support grew, voter participation declined; 56,600 fewer people voted than last time. Voter turnout dropped to 66% (from 76% in 2007), just barely higher than the all-time 1995 low of 65%. Many on the bottom of the growing inequality gap that the NDP belatedly tried to appeal to probably never voted. This is not good.
Some NDPers may want someone to blame but this won’t work. It was fairly easy for the Greens to become the third party with the Liberals running only a few candidates and dropping from 9% to less than 1% of the vote this time. Meanwhile the Green vote barely rose from 2% in 2007 to 2.8%. They may regret watering down their message of ecological sustainability just as polls showed they have the most credibility on the environment with the voting public.
Nor did the Greens play a role in Sask Party gains. Higher profile environmental candidates Peter Prebble in Saskatoon and Yens Pedersen in Regina lost by 1,700 and 800 respectively. Greens only received 135 and 295 votes. Only in Lingenfelter’s riding did the Greens almost make an impact, with new leader Victor Lau getting over 500 votes. But Lingenfelter lost by 900.
The Greens will have some soul-searching to do to sort out why they didn’t gain more support when the NDP was in such a free-fall. Not being able to count on a fair voting system such as proportional representation (PR), the Greens have to develop a well-thought out strategy which likely means extra-parliamentary activity between elections.
A NEW SASKATCHEWAN?
Will the NDP bounce back with a more compelling message of equality and sustainability? Or are we perhaps entering decades of Alberta-like one-party rule built on the back of profitable resource-exporting?
Is the party that has governed for 47 of the last 67 years no longer the natural governing party? Will the expansion of oil and gas drilling, the development of our “own” tar sands and more little steps to nuclearize the province, take us down a one-way street, perhaps to a one-party state? This seems to happen in profitable resource-extracting regions whether in the Middle East or in hinterland regions in industrial societies.
The trend from agriculture to mineral wealth took place over many decades and it will take years to change course to find a sustainable path. From 1950 to 1980 the value of agriculture in the goods-producing sector fell from 70% to 40% of the total, while minerals grew five-fold from 5% to 25%. The big expansion of non-renewable extraction occurred with the joint-ventures of the crowns under NDP Premier Blakeney. Those crowns were later privatized by the Devine government and mineral wealth now flows out of the province in unprecedented billions, while leaving our north the second poorest region in all Canada. Poverty will continue to trickle down!
Lingenfelter couldn’t get traction with his bid to increase potash royalties because the full story of resource royalties and profits and ecological impacts was never told. It will soon have to be told in order for the “New Saskatchewan” to catch up with the rest of a world already struggling with vital questions of inequality, unsustainable resource profiteering and the climate crisis. The small NDP opposition has to study and seriously articulate these challenges if they are ever to take the not so new Saskatchewan in a different direction.