In a recent book on Saskatchewan politics much was made of the clash between continuity and change in the province. When most Canadians outside of the province think of Saskatchewan they think of flat rolling wheat fields, small towns, and socialist experiments like medicare. Some of those things are still there. However, much has changed. The agricultural community is in severe crisis, small towns are dying, and the economy of the province is now propelled by the service and natural resource industries. As well, the ethnic and linguistic make- up of the province is changing dramatically. In particular, the aboriginal community is growing at a very fast rate.

One might expect all of this to have a dramatic impact on politics and the political parties in the province. In some ways it does. In response to what has transpired in the rest of the world, political parties in the province have moved ideologically toward the Right. Some parties, the Progressive Conservative Party of Saskatchewan, for example, have disappeared, while new parties, like the Saskatchewan Party, have appeared on the scene.

Using Alberta as an example of what can supposedly be accomplished by the private enterprise system, successive right-of-centre parties in the province have argued that Saskatchewan need only adopt the private enterprise system of its western neighbour in order to succeed. Those on the Left point to the fact that Saskatchewan’s resources are more landlocked, that greater amounts of capital and technology were needed to develop them, and that they do not repre- sent the same potential for short-term gain as did light crude oil in the case of Alberta. They argue that Saskatchewan is on the right track with its slower develop- ment and greater attention to social experiments that bring greater equality and a better quality of life. For the voters of the province, then, it was not at all clear that switching to the Alberta model would bring with it the same economic prosperity that province has achieved. This, then, was the context for the election of November 2003.

This mo st recent election night could not have been more different than the one in 1999. Then, NDP pre- mier Roy Romanow was ahead in all the polls and the local chattering class gen- erally conceded his eventual victory. Thus, relatively early into the counting of the votes, and confident in its com- puter projections, the CBC election desk announced that the NDP would win its third majority government. As the night wore on, however, this was not to be, and the NDP had to make do with a minority government. Needless to say, the media were embarrassed, and that no doubt contributed to the more cautious coverage of what all conceded was a pretty close fight four years later.

With the NDP, now led by former Romanow cabinet minister Lorne Calvert, and the opposition Saskatchewan Party, led again by former Reform Party MP Elwin Hermanson, locked in an effective dead heat in the polls, the media was reticent to rely on computer projections. More than two hours after the polls closed and with a single seat see-sawing between the NDP and new Liberal leader David Karwacki, the CBC pronounced an NDP victory. But it would not venture a prediction on who would win the Saskatoon riding that would make the difference between a majority or a minority government. In the end, the Liberals were shut out of the legislature as the NDP took 30 seats to the Saskatchewan Party’s 28. After the selection of the Speaker, the NDP had a one-seat advantage.

Going into the election, the Saskatchewan Party appeared poised for victory. After nearly unseating would make the difference between a majority or a minority government. In the end, the Liberals were shut out of the legislature as the NDP took 30 seats to the Saskatchewan Party’s 28. After the selection of the Speaker, the NDP had a one-seat advantage.

Going into the election, the Saskatchewan Party appeared poised for victory. After nearly unseating ened somewhat, but not to the extent that anyone could declare a recovery. Economic growth was modest, but higher than in much of the rest of the country. Yet, the balanced budgets that marked the Romanow era were quickly fading as the province again moved toward deficit. Though well regarded, the new premier appeared to many to be less charismatic than the man he replaced and certainly did not have the same national profile as Roy Romanow.

More importantly, in the year and a half since Romanow’s departure, the government appeared to be lurching from one minor scandal to another. None of these alone, whether a failed investment in a potato processing plant, the delay in a proposed ethanol facility or a series of questionable out-of-country investments by provincial Crown corpo- rations, was enough to sink a government. But taken together they painted a pic- ture of a government that was, as the Opposition charged, at best ”œtired” and ”œout of ideas” and, at worst, ”œincompetent” and ”œfiscally irresponsible.”

Shortly after the election call, howev- er, the Saskatchewan Party provided the NDP some momentum by appearing untrustworthy on a number of ”œwedge issues.” In response to a question con- cerning his party’s intentions vis-aÌ€-vis the privatization of the large Crown cor- porations (Sask Energy, Sask Power, SaskTel, Saskatchewan Government Insurance (SGI) and the Saskatchewan Crown Investment Corporation (CIC), which provides direct and venture capi- tal investment in various sectors of the economy), Hermanson said, in effect, that the Saskatchewan Party had no plans at this time to sell the big Crowns. The NDP leapt on the phrase ”œat this time” as being code for ”œthere could be plans in the future,” and for the first time in recent years the Opposition was on the defensive.

In the coming weeks, the NDP would hammer on this issue and argued that the Saskatchewan Party was plan- ning to dismantle those very instru- ments of public policy that were so important to the building of the province and, arguably, to its future eco- nomic stability. The Saskatchewan Party called this fear-mongering, but the abil- ity of the NDP to raise the spectre of the Saskatchewan Party as being blinkered by their ideological commitment to all things privatized, and to raise doubts about whether the party was being com- pletely forthright about its agenda, went deeper than mere fear-mongering.

While the polls put the two parties in a virtual dead heat in terms of vot- ing intentions ”” the NDP was slightly ahead but within the margin of error ”” a more detailed look showed some- thing more. In some key policy areas such as ”œhandling the economy” and ”œdealing with rural issues,” the Saskatchewan Party had a clear advan- tage, while the NDP was favoured to ”œprovide adequate social services” and ”œpreserve public health care.” But on the more undefineable issues, such as ”œwho do you trust” and who ”œwould be the better premier,” Calvert out- polled Hermanson two to one.

While the majority of voters expressed a desire for change (which was true even for many of those who intended to vote for the NDP), it seems clear in retrospect that they were not prepared to accept change simply for change’s sake. Indeed, in the end, the NDP’s popular vote went up by 5 per- cent, and though they lost some urban seats, they managed to capture some seats in rural ridings where they had previously been shut out. The Saskatchewan Party’s vote declined slightly overall, and though they man- aged to make inroads into the city of Saskatoon, their disappointment at once again failing to unseat the govern- ment ”” especially a government they thought was more vulnerable this time around ”” was palpable. As a result, Hermanson announced his intention to resign as leader early in 2004.

Having secured their fourth succes- sive election victory (a feat not accomplished since Tommy Douglas’s six straight majority governments), the NDP now faces a number of chal- lenges of which any one could cause the government to stumble badly. While this election allowed Calvert to receive his own mandate from the electorate and thus marks the real beginning of the Calvert era, he is still short of the new blood in the caucus that would mark a definitive break with his predecessor. Calvert’s new cabinet is filled with many familiar faces, especially in most of the key portfolios.

The most pressing issue for the gov-ernment may in fact be the one it has the least control over ”” the state of the provincial economy. As the most recent budget con- firmed, the modest surpluses of  the Romanow years are clearly at an end and the government will effectively exhaust the so-called fiscal stabilization fund with which it has ”œbalanced” its budgets in the past few years. At the same time, as demands for increased spending on health care and education continue, it seems clear that the province has a revenue problem. And the call in the budget for increases in a host of user fees and a 1 percentage point rise in the provincial sales tax, although not popular with the public, could well have been bigger had the federal government not provided a one-time compensation payment for its over-zealous clawback of resource revenues. The problems in the agricultural sector, even though it is no longer the biggest part of the provincial economy, are large enough to create a substantial drag on the province as a whole. Low international prices and declining markets for wheat and other crops, the persistence of massive agricul- tural subsidies for US and EU farmers, the closing of markets for cattle as a result of BSE, and half a decade of drought all highlight the grim adage that neither crime nor farming pays.

Of similar importance, as highlight- ed by the tone and substance of the recent election debate, is the future role of the major Crown corporations. Some ”” but by no means all ”” international investments by the Crown Investment Corporation (CIC) have been unsuccess- ful. This, coupled with some ill- conceived local investments such as the millions pumped into a film production facility that is now under bankruptcy protection, speaks to the need to review the role of the Crowns and their rela- tionship with the government.

Though some residents may love to hate the Crown utilities ”” after all, no one likes the phone company ”” they are at the same time deeply attached to the fact they ”œbelong” to the people of the province, thus they continue to serve an important public policy purpose. With a small popula- tion spread over a large territory, there is little faith, for example, that a private telephone company would expend the kind of resources necessary to ensure access to high-speed internet across the province as SaskTel did for a number of years. And as skyrocketing auto insur- ance rates became an issue in a number of provincial elections over the past year, there was a certain satisfaction that, thanks to SGI, Saskatchewan resi- dents enjoy some of the lowest auto insurance rates in the country.

At the same time, however, there is some unease about the degree of accountability of the Crowns to the provincial government, especially about the extent to which the CIC invests in foreign business ventures and how such investments are evaluated. Of course, such criticisms might have been be more muted had fewer of these invest- ments, such as those in Australian cable operations, failed to pay off. But the fact remains that the new government is going to have to confront the issue of the advisability of investing in interna- tional ventures at a time when venture and direct capital investment might be more wisely used to support the bur- geoning service and knowledge econo- my within the province itself.

The inner workings of government
Keep track of who’s doing what to get federal policy made. In The Functionary.
The Functionary
Our newsletter about the public service. Nominated for a Digital Publishing Award.

This brings us to one of the more important issues resonating through the politics of the province ”” the disturbing demo- graphic profile that is emerging and its implications for the future of the province. On the one hand, the fastest growing age cohort in the province is the one nearing retirement; younger resi- dents, especially those with post- secondary education, seek economic opportunities outside the province (and especially in neighbouring Alberta). On the other hand, the province’s Aboriginal population is also growing, and especially within the younger age cohorts. But the latter population still suffers from the social pathologies that have persist- ently marked the lives of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples. Thus, what should be the province’s greatest resource is, through a combination of social and gov- ernment inertia, in danger of being tragi- cally wasted.

Looking ahead, two things are important for the Saskatchewan Party. First, the party needs to attract a younger and more urban constituency to the party. The ascension, unop- posed, of Swift Current MLA Brad Wall to the party’s leadership may provide the opportunity.

Second, despite its name, those in charge of the development of policy in the Saskatchewan Party seem to have lit- tle understanding of the complexity of the province’s political scene. In the interval between 1999 and 2003 they seemed to be confident that if they simply proposed the Alberta model of devel- opment to the people of Saskatchewan the election would be a foregone conclu- sion. But party’s insistence in the cam- paign that they would not sell the Crowns did not square with its adher- ence over the previous four years to the idea that free markets and the ”œAlberta way” were the answer. If the Saskatchewan Party is going to move for- ward, it must understand that it may have to modify its policies in order to make them more acceptable to main- stream voters. This will require them to rethink such proposals as privatization of major Crown corporations, simplistic tax reductions proposals, and their approach to social services and Aborigi- nal peoples. Unless they do, it is not at all clear that they will win an election at any time in the near future.

All of these projects will take a bit of time. The government’s unpopular budget could induce the Saskatchewan Party to try to defeat the government in the legislature and force another election. It would be a risky strategy, but the idea of reversing the outcome of the last election may be too tempting to resist.

The problem for the New Democratic Party is more complex, and in some ways more difficult. When they head into the next election they will be asking for a fifth successive mandate. In modern-day Canadian politics this is unprecedented. In an age of eight-second news clips, longevi- ty in government is not a virtue. As well, the NDP is likely to have the same leader, which may reinforce the percep- tion that a change in government is needed. We also know that the fiscal situation in the province is not likely to recover in the near future.

In order to win a fourth term the NDP capitalized on Calvert’s ”œtrust- worthiness” with the electorate, and on election night he staked out his claim to that territory. It remains to be seen if he is able to put together gov- ernment policies that will respond to the public’s desire for that amorphous quality. Indeed, the policy areas that need the most attention and the most creativity are also those areas where the Calvert government made little progress in the year and a half before winning its own mandate.

First, he must respond in some pos- itive way to the massive changes that are taking place in rural Saskatchewan. The latest farm income statistics indi- cate that we have suffered the single largest decline in agricultural income since 1921. In many respects the prob- lems in rural areas remain a litmus test for successful public policy in the province. But in real policy terms, much of what can be done requires the assis- tance of other governments. Unlike in Alberta, the ability of the Saskatchewan government to compensate farmers for losses due to drought or closed borders for cattle or beef is severely constrained, and the federal assistance to date has proven insufficient.

More importantly, the rural ”œcri- sis” goes much further than the drought or the tempo- rary dislocation caused by BSE. The basis of the rural economy ”” the independ- ent family farm ”” no longer sustains in the man- ner in which it did a gener- ation or two ago. Modern successful farms are either growing in size or adapting to small niche markets for more specialized crops. Factory farming of livestock is both more wide- spread and more controversial in terms of its environmental impact. This con- centration of capital pushes rural resi- dents into the cities, which further contributes to the decline of rural com- munities as all the things that signify ”œa community” disappear one by one ”” bank branches, schools and hospi- tals are closed; post offices are down- sized; and so on. There are no easy policy options that will either reverse or ease these transformations, and the province’s urban residents are increas- ingly uneasy about the cost of current farm support policies and programs.

In both the short and longer terms the government must demonstrate to Saskatchewan’s Aboriginal and non- Aboriginal communities that it has the ability and the imagination to begin the process of bringing the two communi- ties together. If the province is to suc- ceed in the 21st century, it cannot continue to ignore the untapped poten- tial in the Aboriginal communities.

Yet, as recent data collected by the Centre for Research and Information on Canada demonstrates, there is a very wide gulf between the two com- munities. While Canadians across the country ”” including in Saskatchewan ”” may agree in the abstract that ”œsomething must be done” about the appalling and shameful conditions in which the Aboriginal peoples live, there is significant resistance to the expansion of Aboriginal treaty rights in places where the non-Aboriginal population will most directly feel the impact of such an expansion. In the recent municipal elections in the province, MP Jim Pankiw ”” who has made a career of criticizing the so-called reverse racism of the policy toward Aboriginal people ”” placed a strong third with 23 percent of the vote in his run for mayor of Saskatoon. This, along with the ongoing inquiry into the actions of the Saskatoon city police with regard to the death of Neil Stonechild, speaks to a racial divide in the province that should be profound- ly disturbing to any government.

Finally, Saskatchewan’s role in the federation may be changing. The Romanow years were marked by a strong commitment to collaborative federalism, with the premier often trying to act as a mediator between the federal govern- ment and some of his provincial coun- terparts. But Calvert has neither the close personal relationship with the prime minister that Romanow had (forged as it was by their shared role in the constitu- tional battles of the 1980s), nor the sta- tus that comes with being a long-serving premier (he is, after all, only a few months into his first real mandate). But more importantly, perhaps, there is a growing list of irritants that could push the province to take a much harder line with Ottawa than it has in the past.

Some of these have already been discussed ”” the response to BSE and the closing of the borders, and financial support for the agricultural sector ”” but another may soon move to the fore- front. A recent IRPP Choices study by Queen’s economist Thomas Courchene (March 2004) has revealed that every dollar raised from oil and gas in the province results in a federal clawback of slightly more than a dollar in equaliza- tion payments. If Courchene’s analysis is correct, then the province has been short-changed of hundreds of millions of dollars over the past number of years and the pressure on the province to take a hard line with Ottawa over a new equalization formula is only going to grow. The $120 million Saskatchewan recently received from Ottawa was deemed a one-time payment to correct some past errors in the application of the formula. For the government of Saskatchewan, it was merely a down payment on what it is owed.

Equalization, coupled with the intergovernmental aspects of the agri- cultural crisis and the future of the Aboriginal populations, could serve to move the province away from its past role as a ”œfixer” between the federal government and the more hardline provincial governments and place it more firmly in the provincialist/decen- tralist camp. This would significantly change the intergovernmental dynamic and make relations between the federal and provincial governments potentially more testy than they already are.

These issues could also directly affect the fortunes of the Martin govern- ment in the next federal election. The two most powerful westerners in Cabinet are undoubtedly Anne McLellan from Edmonton and Ralph Goodale from Regina. With anger over the spon- sorship scandal already eroding support in the West for the new prime minister, failing to take seriously the range of intergovernmental issues being articulat- ed from Western premiers (who are per- haps more united in their grievances than in the past) might not only forestall Martin’s desire to increase the Liberal Party’s presence in the region, but also threaten its already fragile support base.

Saskatchewan has never worn the mantle of the ”œalienated Westerner” very comfortably. It has, traditionally, believed in both strong provincial and strong federal governments and it has done so out of necessity. In the recent health care debates, for example, Saskatchewan took the position that Ottawa’s funding should increase not because of a so-called fiscal imbalance but because Ottawa had an obligation to Canadians to be involved in the future of medicare. But the multitude of pressures currently being placed on the new Calvert administration may mean that it will have to take a much harder line for its voice to be heard. Saskatchewan voters may have reject- ed the Alberta model of economic development proposed by the Opposition, but Alberta-style intergov- ernmentalism may be more attractive in the face of federal inaction.

You are welcome to republish this Policy Options article online or in print periodicals, under a Creative Commons/No Derivatives licence.

Creative Commons License

More like this