The campaign for the new leader of the Saskatchewan NDP takes off this Saturday with the first public debate among the four candidates. There are thirteen debates scheduled between November 17 and February 16, 2013. This will allow NDP members and others to see the differences between the candidates. The leadership convention is scheduled for the weekend of March 9, 2013 in Saskatoon.
As everyone knows, the provincial NDP is in dire straits at this time. Their support among voters has dropped from 275,000 in 1991 to only 127,000 in 2011. Their membership has dropped from 46,000 in 1991 to around 8,000 today. The turnout at elections has dropped from 75% of eligible voters in 1991 to only 50% in 2011. The provincial Liberal Party has all but disappeared, which means that the NDP will likely have to win close to 51% of the vote to once again form the government. They now face Brad Wall and the Saskatchewan Party whose government has had an approval rating of 70% in recent public opinion polls.
The leadership candidates
The four leadership candidates are all young white men. Trent Wotherspoon, the MLA from Regina-Rosemont, appears to have the most support at this time. However, he was a strong supporter of bringing Dwaine Lingenfelter back to lead the party in 2009, and this proved to be an absolute disaster.
Cam Broten, the MLA from Saskatoon Massey Place, supported Deb Higgins for leader in 2009. Higgins had been a cabinet minister in Lorne Calvert’s NDP government but finished last in the leadership race. Because of their status as Members of the Legislative Assembly, these two candidates are the best known among party members. But because they are closely identified with the present NDP caucus, they are seen to be less likely to lead the party in a new direction.
The third candidate is Ryan Meili, a doctor and social justice activist from Saskatoon. He contested the leadership against Dwaine Lingenfelter in 2009 and finished second with 45% of the vote. He appears to have the support of many of the traditional “left” within the provincial party.
The youngest candidate is Erin Weir, an economist who has taken leave from his job with the United Steelworkers Union and the Canadian Labour Congress in Ottawa. He also spent 2010-11 with the International Trade Union Confederation in Europe. He has some public recognition from his appearances in the television media representing the political left.
The CCF-NDP as a force for democracy
At this time in history the political left in Saskatchewan has two possible roads to take. The CCF-NDP was founded as a broad popular movement with a goal of expanding the democratic project against the power of the corporations and their political allies. It was an alliance of the populist farm movement, the trade union movement, the teachers, and those deeply involved in the co-operative and credit union movement.
Their goal was to capture the government and use its resources to bring public utilities to the entire province, develop a social welfare program that covered everyone, promote a more equal distribution of income and wealth, and expand human rights. Once elected to government they advanced this agenda, despite a major debt which they inherited, through the introduction of a system of progressive taxation and an increase in royalties and taxes paid by the transnational corporations that extract and sell the province’s natural resources. The CCF-NDP followed this broad democratic strategy from 1944 through 1982, under the governments of T. C. Douglas, Woodrow Lloyd and Allan Blakeney.
The NDP government of Allan Blakeney (1971-82) demonstrated that the people of Saskatchewan were capable of effectively running their own economy. The Saskatchewan Oil and Gas Corporation and the Saskatchewan Potash Corporation were successful Crown corporations. Sask Power did an excellent job developing the natural gas industry. The Saskatchewan Mining and Development Act of 1974 permitted the province to gain a significant equity position in uranium mining ventures. The province also took over the failed Prince Albert Pulp Mill and established Sask Forest Products. The Saskatchewan Heritage Fund was created in 1978.
Having greater control over the provincial economy led to increased government revenues, the introduction of new social programs and the expansion of public education. A much greater share of the profits from resource extraction stayed with the people of the province rather than going to foreign investors. This was the strategy of “province building.”
The neoliberal alternative
Grant Devine’s Conservative government was in office between 1982 and 1991 and pushed the alternative policy model supported by big business: limited government, the promotion of the unregulated free market and the broad free trade agenda. The major cuts to social programs and the privatization of successful Crown corporations were not popular. Thus, the NDP swept back into office in 1991, greatly assisted by the extra-parliamentary activities of the Saskatchewan Coalition for Social Justice and the anti-free trade movement across Canada. While in opposition, the NDP caucus opposed Grant Devine’s neoliberal policies and promised a return to the democratic tradition of the CCF-NDP. They were now led by Roy Romanow, who had been selected the new leader of the party in 1987.
However, once in office, Romanow’s government backtracked on this pledge. Instead, they continued all the major policies of the Devine government. There was further privatization of Crown corporations, deregulation of the natural gas industry, the implementation of a very regressive taxation policy which significantly increased inequality, the “wellness model” included the closing of 52 rural hospitals, and the government consistently supported the interests of agribusiness corporations against family farmers. They took a hard line against the Kyoto Protocol and any attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the province. Social programs were cut, as were grants to municipalities and school boards.
Public support for the NDP steadily fell. After the 1999 election the NDP was forced to form an alliance with the Liberal members of the Legislature in order to continue to govern. In 2000 Roy Romanow announced his retirement, and his former cabinet minister, Lorne Calvert, replaced him as party leader and Premier in 2001. But very little changed. Notably, Calvert’s government further reduced the royalties charged corporations for the extraction of our natural resources.
The choice for the NDP membership
This general shift to the neoliberal right was strongly supported by Dwaine Lingenfelter, Deputy Leader in the Romanow government, who was elected the new leader of the NDP in 2009. No one was surprised when the NDP was routed in the provincial election in 2011, with its share of the popular vote falling to a record 32%.
The membership of the Saskatchewan NDP now faces the most important decision in its history. It seems most likely that if they choose a “business as usual” leader, they could well remain a weak opposition party far into the future. As it now stands, Brad Wall and the Saskatchewan Party have a firm grip on the neoliberal strategy. They insist that this policy direction is responsible for Saskatchewan’s good times: the increase in population, relatively low unemployment, average wages which are now above the national average, and the expanded role of the large transnational corporations extracting and selling our non-renewable resources.
The other choice is to elect a leader who is committed to a different view of the future of Saskatchewan, one that stresses a return to the broad strategy of expanding democracy, gaining control over our economy, and seriously addressing the issue of climate change.
John W. Warnock, a long time political activist, is retired from teaching political economy and sociology at the University of Regina. He is author of Saskatchewan: The Roots of Discontent and Protest.
NOTE: Regina NDP leadership debate, November 17, 2012, Ramada Inn, 1818 Victoria Ave., 7:00 p.m.