Saskatchewan NDP's fortunes don't improve much in provincial election

SASKATOON — In a province where the New Democratic Party and its forerunner the CCF were once dominant, the last 13 years have been tough ones for the Saskatchewan NDP.

From a socialist perspective, the birthplace of medicare and home of former premier Tommy Douglas has fallen on hard times.

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Douglas was CCF premier from 1944 until 1961 when he became leader of the federal New Democrats. Allan Blakeney served as NDP premier from 1971 to 1982, followed by Roy Romanow, who held the job for a decade before being replaced by Lorne Calvert. Calvert won a single term before being defeated in 2007.

Since then, NDP fortunes have inexplicably waned.

"That's the million-dollar question. There are all sorts of things that people point to (to) explain what happened. The biggest part of this is the loss of support in rural Saskatchewan. That is where the decline in support is most noticeable," said Tom McIntosh, a political science professor from the University of Regina.

The NDP, with Ryan Meili as leader, held 13 out of 61 seats in the legislature before the provincial election call. The party appeared to have only bettered that slightly in Monday's vote. Meili was also trailing by 83 votes in his own seat with mail-in ballots to be counted in the coming days.

"We know it wasn't enough this time," Meili told a Saskatoon hotel ballroom, which was largely empty due to COVID-19 restrictions.

"My message tonight is for those who voted for change, because there are thousands upon thousands of people across Saskatchewan who voted for change," he said.

"I want to tell you this is not the end. This is the beginning. Do not give up."

Former NDP politician Pat Atkinson, who served in the cabinets of both Romanow and Calvert, said the party's fiscal prudence backfired.

"At some stage people get tired of you and they put you out," she said. "We had been fiscally responsible. We watched every dime. We were starting to have some money, because resource revenue was improving, our population was improving," Atkinson said.

"I think we were skinflints. We were so careful because our whole thing was to lower the debt. (Former Saskatchewan Party leader) Brad Wall was new and shiny and a good public speaker."

McIntosh said the Douglas legacy doesn't hold the same political cache it did 20 years ago.

"The social gospel of Douglas and the others in the CCF and the co-op movement doesn't really resonate. I don't think that kind of romantic nostalgia for the past flies with the public because the public that it is aimed at isn't around anymore."

Support also has a lot to do with the personal charisma of the leader, he said.

Blakeney had it. So did Romanow, who was once referred to as the "Robert Redford of the Prairies," and so did Wall.

"Brad Wall was both charismatic and remarkably smart. I think he is the most successful conservative politician in the country in the last 20 years," suggested McIntosh.

"And he went out on a high note. (Scott) Moe is not a charismatic leader. Meili is more charismatic, more personable, than Moe, but he's not a Brad Wall either."

McIntosh suggested Meili needed to improve the party's standings substantially to consider the campaign a success.

"But I don't think there are a lot of people anxious to take Meili's job. So if there are some overall gains that can be pointed to, if they can tell a narrative of righting the ship and heading in a positive direction, then he'll be safe."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published October 26, 2020.

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