An imminent by-election could say a lot about Sask politics

Province | by Gregory Beatty

The Saskatchewan Legislature ground to a halt on Nov. 29 when Saskatchewan Party MLA Roger Parent succumbed to cancer at age 63. In last April’s election, Parent defeated the NDP’s Nicole White by 529 votes to win a second term representing Saskatoon Meewasin. And MLAs from both parties joined together to mourn his loss.

By law, the government has until May 29 to call a by-election. But with a bad-news budget due in mid-March, speculation is that Premier Brad Wall will drop the writ before then to avoid what will surely be major budget fallout.

One high profile candidate has already announced his intention to seek the NDP nomination: physician Ryan Meili. Regarded as a progressive voice in NDP ranks, Meili has twice suffered narrow defeats in provincial leadership contests to Dwain Lingenfelter (2009) and Cam Broten (2012).

One factor that hampered Meili was his lack of political experience, and a sense within the party that he’d yet to pay his dues. In 2014, Meili was appointed by the Wall government to be a community representative on an advisory group on poverty reduction.

Now, he’s eager to take on the government. [see sidebar]

Tough Times

The by-election comes at an interesting time, says University of Saskatchewan political scientist Charles Smith.

“If you look at the grand political narrative, a lot has changed since the election. The Sask. Party played it very smart,” says Smith. “They didn’t bring in a budget, and were able to minimize the looming deficit. People speculated, but nobody knew the figures for sure. They were able to downplay the GTH land scandal, and the whole governance and competence issue.

“Those things are on the table now,” adds Smith. “We know the fiscal hole is huge, and ideologically the government’s not willing to raise taxes or resource royalty rates. We know there are real problems with the GTH land deal. There’s an air of scandal around the government. Mr. Wall’s office has been implicated. So we’re dealing with a different political landscape.”

Before Parent’s first election win in 2011, Saskatoon Meewasin had been held by the NDP since 1991. The riding borders the downtown, but is mostly made-up of middle-class suburban voters.

If Meili gets the NDP nomination, Smith thinks he’d have traction in the riding.

“The NDP had a good candidate last April in Nicole White,” says Smith. “She was young and energetic, and worked the doorstep hard. So she did a lot of good work to lay the foundation for a potential win.

“Ryan Meili is a name, he’s got a record, and as a doctor he’d have a lot of support from suburban middle-class voters. So as a candidate, he’s really well-placed to do well in the riding.”

High Stakes

By-elections often serve as a litmus test for a government. Assuming it has a comfortable majority, as the Sask. Party does with a 50 to 10 seat advantage, there’s no danger of it falling. So if voters are uneasy with a government’s direction they have an opportunity to send a message.

While the GTH land scandal and budget boondoggle are the biggest pieces of political baggage the Wall government will carry into the by-election, they’re not the only ones. Huge uncertainty (and concern) exists around the government’s “transformational change” agenda, and what that will mean for key portfolios such as education, health, social services and Crown Corporations.

“This is a high stakes by-election,” says Smith. “If the NDP can’t win, it really does show how weak they are. While Mr. Wall remains popular, the government itself is reeling a bit. So the NDP has to be able to capitalize on this by-election to show there’s some momentum away from the Sask. Party.

“There’s a lot at stake for the Sask. Party, too,” adds Smith. “They had probably the worst fall they’ve ever had in government. So one question is whether the party will be able to continue riding Mr. Wall’s popularity. If they lose, there’s a narrative that says the government really is arrogant and out-of-touch. And the NDP has some momentum going into the spring sitting.

“So there’s a lot at stake for both parties.”

One Doctor’s Prescription

What does NDP political hopeful Ryan Meili think of the government’s performance since it was elected to its third majority last April? Not much, apparently.

“It’s an adage in politics that you should judge a government on what it does in hard times and not good times,” says Meili. “What we’re starting to see is the true character and, I think, short-sightedness of this particular government.”

As a doctor, Meili has expertise in health, which is the province’s biggest ministry, accounting for 40 per cent of Saskatchewan’s $14.5 billion budget. Not surprisingly, he has some thoughts on that.

“We often hear how health is taking over the budget,” says Meili. “But the reality is health is already 100 per cent of the budget. The decisions that are made by the government in areas like education, justice, finance and the environment [affect] our well-being.

“We often get stuck thinking we’re doing sound economic analysis when we’re actually doing short-term reactive analysis and not looking at the full cost of decisions or full benefits of social investment,” says Meili. “Health and education return 1.5 to two times the benefit in economic growth, some studies show, while cuts to corporate taxes return 80 per cent. You’re not even breaking even.”

Short-term, Meili adds, an austerity agenda that reduces critical public services — like the one many predict will arrive in the next budget — might save a few dollars.

But longer-term, he says, there’s a price to be paid — both economically, and from a quality of life perspective.

“We’ve seen in Saskatchewan and other parts of the country, there’s a tendency to play it safe and almost downplay what you really want to achieve,” says Meili. “I think the people of Saskatchewan are looking for something more. They’re looking for something they can be hopeful and excited about.

“Obviously, the way the by-election came about, with the passing of Mr. Parent, is tragic. But it does force us now to have what I think will be a really interesting conversation. /Gregory Beatty