What message will Saskatoon Fairview send to the Sask. Party?

Province | by Gregory Beatty

Byelections, by their nature, are crapshoots. You’ve typically got a sitting government with a secure majority. That leaves voters free, if they have any concerns with the governing party, to register their discontent without tossing it from power. The riding itself is another wild card. Does it have a history of leaning one way or another, or does it swing between parties?

Because of those factors and more, byelections have limited value as political barometers. But that doesn’t mean they’re non-events.

And the Sept. 7 byelection in Saskatoon Fairview promises to be especially interesting.

“It’s really difficult to know what’s going to be on voters’ minds,” says University of Saskatchewan political scientist Charles Smith. “If you look at the last two elections, what were the factors that helped the Saskatchewan Party win the riding? The first was an extremely popular premier, an extremely effective campaign by the party, and a really good candidate in Jennifer Campeau. All those factors are now gone.

“On the other side, you have an NDP candidate [Vicki Mowat] who in 2016 had an unpopular leader, a really poor provincial campaign, and she lost by less than 200 votes. Although the NDP doesn’t have a permanent leader either, so there are lots of balls in the air — and the juggling will be interesting to see.”

Legit Gripes

With the recent resignations of Brad Wall and Bill Boyd, more byelections are in Saskatchewan’s future. Both of those ridings (Swift Current and Kindersley) lie in bedrock conservative country, so the odds of a protest vote against the government are long — unless fiscal conservatives decide to punish the Sask. Party for reversing some of the cuts made in its March austerity budget.

Saskatoon Fairview voters will likely have a different view of the budget, says Smith.

“The Sask. Party narrative has been, ‘we knew this would be an unpopular budget, but we had to make the hard decisions now.’ Well, if that’s the case, why do they keep clawing back different cuts? Clearly, it’s not about making tough decisions, it’s about making strategic choices. They chose to cut taxes for the wealthy and business at the expense of these other things.”

Sask. Party partisans probably won’t be too bothered either by the scandal and mismanagement that’s engulfing the government. But in tough economic times, reckless overspending in such areas as the GTH, east Regina bypass, smart meters, Lean health care and carbon capture are tough for voters to swallow.

The growing number of ethical lapses in areas such as access to information and conflict of interest are also troubling.

Leadership Vacuum

Unlike the NDP, which has set a leisurely pace with its leadership race, the Sask. Party will select a new leader on Jan. 27. Current MLAs Tina Beaudry-Mellor, Jeremy Harrison, Gordon Wyant and Ken Cheveldayoff have already announced their intention to run, as has the premier’s unelected deputy minister, Alanna Koch — and other candidates may yet emerge.

Whoever wins, Smith says, they’ll have a tough job ahead of them.

“I wouldn’t envy the successor to Mr. Wall as I think the next budget will be equally draconian because the deficit doesn’t seem to have been reduced even with all the cuts and the increase in PST. So I think his successor, whoever that might be, will be in for a rough ride as it’s not going to be about growing through good times but retracting during tough times.”

Big questions exist, too, about the future direction of the Sask. Party, which was formed in 1997 when eight Progressive Conservative and Liberal MLAs forged a centre-right coalition to battle the NDP. After some early stumbles under the first leader Elwin Hermanson, the party, under Wall, was generally successful at balancing conservative and liberal interests.

But with Wall stepping down, and other stalwarts from the party’s liberal wing such as Bob Bjornerud, June Draude, Rod Gantefoer and Ken Krawetz all retired, the future is murky.

“When Mr. Wall became leader in 2004, his team fought really hard to keep the far right at bay and not put really embarrassing motions on the floor of conventions,” says Smith. “Stuff that Elwin Hermanson would’ve been comfortable with, Wall pushed to the side. I suspect you’re going to see some [infighting] there, and the question is who will win.”

All you have to do is look at Alberta — where the Progressive Conservatives and Wildrose Party are struggling to cobble together a right-wing coalition to take on Rachel Notley’s NDP government in the next election (set for May 31, 2019) — to realize how divisive that can be.

“The infighting that’s occurred in Alberta shows this is not your dad’s or mom’s PC party,” says Smith. “This is a much more conservative party that’s coming out of the movement to unite the PCs and Wildrose Party. They’ve put social conservative issues on the agenda that never would’ve been touched by the former PCs.

“If we start seeing that in the Sask. Party race, you’re going to see a real problem for them.”

Regardless of which wing of the party prevails, one of the cornerstone policies of the Wall era is likely to remain intact — namely, a virulent disdain for action on climate change and our need, as a province, to reduce our sky-high per capita carbon emissions.

From the government’s relentless pro-pipeline stance to its gamble on carbon capture, refusal to regulate the oil industry to rein-in fugitive gases and safeguard against spills — not to mention  a near-cartoonish hatred towards any idea of imposing a carbon price — it’s clear the environment was not a priority for Wall.

And that’s something that seems to go against the way the world’s going.

“Even non-progressive jurisdictions, like the rapidly developing countries in south-east Asia, are turning away from coal and other carbon fuels,” says Smith. “And I think they’ll have to, because there will be global pressure to do that.

“The Sask. Party’s answer is to double-down on coal and oil and ‘anyone who opposes us doesn’t understand the issue’,” Smith adds. “I don’t think that’s true, though. People are very aware and open to discussing the transition to a much greener and prosperous 21st century economy.

“But right now that conversation is absent in the legislature, quite frankly by both the Sask. Party and NDP.” ❧