The Sask. Party picks a leader on the right side of the spectrum
Province | by Gregory Beatty
Chinese scientists made headlines recently when they cloned two long-tailed macaques. The experiment was heralded as opening the door to possible human cloning. Unfortunately, that development came too late for Saskatchewan Party delegates who gathered in Saskatoon on Jan. 27 to select a leader to replace Brad Wall — their revered political Moses who led them to the promised land of three majority governments.
With cloning not an option, delegates were reduced to choosing between five candidates who, through their platforms and politicking, sought to style themselves as much as possible after Wall. That made for a tepid race, says Simon Enoch of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ Saskatchewan branch.
“None of the candidates were willing to chart a new direction,” says Enoch. “There may have been baby steps for some trying to get out from under Brad Wall’s shadow, but for the most part everyone was on board with the government’s current agenda.”
Even so, come convention day there was still plenty of drama but in the end, Scott Moe emerged victorious, edging out Alana Koch with 53.7 per cent of the vote after Ken Cheveldayoff, Gord Wyant and Tina Beaudry-Mellor had been dropped from the ranked ballot.
But while the race was generally collegial, there was some acrimony that could signal deeper divisions in the party, says University of Saskatchewan political scientist Charles Smith.
“Moe had some setbacks with his personal history [namely, a 1992 impaired driving conviction when he was 18, and a 1997 traffic charge in a fatal highway accident], but he got the endorsement of 22 MLAs right out of the gate,” says Smith.
“Koch was clearly the choice of Wall’s inner circle,” he says. “There was the mini-scandal around feeding her debate questions, and Wall’s close relatives endorsed her. So there was some division in the party between where some of the caucus wanted to go and where the Wall people wanted to go.”
Wall was surely aware of that division when he spoke at the convention, where he delivered a highly partisan speech that took shots at the provincial NDP opposition, Rachel Notley’s Alberta government, and federal policy ideas such as the LEAP Manifesto.
“He’s been doing that for awhile, but it’s interesting he chose to do it at the convention which I thought was a subtle way to say ‘Listen, the real enemy is out there. It’s not in here,’” says Smith. “He was speaking to a room that was clearly divided. When the numbers came down it was a four-way split between Moe, Koch, Cheveldayoff and Wyant. So the party’s by no means unified, and that will be an internal challenge.”
While Wall had the benefit of taking office during the early stages of an unprecedented commodity boom that enabled him to keep both liberal and conservative wings of the party happy through various spending and tax cutting initiatives, conditions are much tougher now.
Even with Wall at the helm, the Sask. Party was struggling to cope with a host of bad-news stories from the slumping economy to the GTH land scandal, massively over-budget east Regina bypass, the bankruptcy of a P3 partner in the North Battleford hospital build and questionable oversight of the Quill Lakes water diversion project.
Throw in the looming legalization of cannabis, a vow to use the Notwithstanding clause to permit preferential funding for faith-based education, a huge disconnect with Saskatchewan’s Indigenous community and more, and the party has its hands full.
And Smith wonders how it will fare under Moe.
“There were likely a lot of people waking up on Sunday going ‘Scott who?’. In cabinet, he didn’t have prominent portfolios. Taking on Ottawa over carbon pricing seemed to be his main policy plank.”
Plenty of questions surround the government’s future direction, and how successful Moe will be at holding together the conservative/liberal and rural/urban coalition that paved the way for Wall’s record-breaking majorities.
Certainly, during the leadership race, rural/conservative elements dominated. The two candidates who dared to speak from an urban/progressive perspective, Beaudry-Mellor and Wyant, were the first off the ballot. “The policies they were putting forward were more moderate and centrist, which maybe aren’t the type of policies that fire up the Sask. Party base,” says Enoch.
The first clue on where the Moe government is headed will come when the new cabinet is appointed. Will MLAs such as Wyant, Beaudry-Mellor and others with an urban/liberal outlook be given key posts, or will the premier draw more on his rural/conservative backers?
Then comes the budget. While some candidates broached the idea of deviating from Wall’s commitment to balance the books in time for the next election in 2020, Moe supported it. Enoch wonders, though, if that’s possible.
“With many of the cuts they brought in, they’ve done an about-face. They’re not getting as much PST revenue as they anticipated. We haven’t seen a recovery in resource royalties, and they’ve blown through most of the contingency fund,” he says.
Moe also promised to remove the PST from crop, life and health insurance, and invest an additional $30 million in education (which won him support from the Saskatchewan Teachers Federation). To make up for the lost revenue and increased expenditures, Moe’s proposed reducing the executive council and crown corporation workforce by five per cent.
“I’m expecting another austerity budget,” says Enoch. “The question is whether Scott Moe is going to be able to sell it to the people of Saskatchewan. Brad Wall, one of the savviest politicians ever to rule this province, had a hard time selling the last budget. I think the new premier is going to have an even tougher challenge selling more austerity.”
If the Sask. Party sticks to an austerity agenda, says Smith, urban areas will be hit especially hard.
“The urban economy is more diverse, obviously, but it also relies on the Crowns, universities, [hospitals] and other types of public infrastructure in a way that rural Saskatchewan doesn’t. So urban Saskatchewan will be hit quicker and more severely.”
While commodity prices have shown some signs of life lately, Saskatchewan’s economy remains in the doldrums, with rising unemployment, growing debt and minimal GDP growth.
Meanwhile, Alberta, under the Rachel Notley NDP, is steaming along after adopting a stimulus strategy. Eventually, that comparison could hurt the Sask. Party, says Enoch.
“The longer they continue with an austerity agenda — and it actually does the opposite of what they say it’s supposed to do, so that we continue to rack up deficits and have poor economic performance and high unemployment — the more people are going to ask ‘Why are you pursuing this?’”
Meili or Wotherspoon: who will be the NDP’s anti‑Scott?
On March 3, NDP members will gather in Regina to select a new leader. And Simon Enoch wonders if the outcome of the Sask. Party race won’t have an impact.
“I do wonder what the election of Moe does for the race, and who the NDP might see as being better positioned to defeat him. Is it Trent Wotherspoon with his more centrist, cautious approach, or is it Ryan Meili with perhaps a more progressive approach?”
A lot, of course, depends on the Moe government’s performance over the next month. Should it revert to a pre-Wall stance that prioritizes rural and conservative interests, it could create a perception among NDP delegates that some centrist voters are up for grabs.
While Moe was likely the closest thing to being Elwin Hermanson 2.0 in the Sask. Party leadership race, there would’ve been thoughts along those lines even if Koch or Cheveldayoff had won, says Smith.
“I think there’s a swath of voters now who will be looking at both parties and wondering what’s going to happen. If the Sask. Party continues with austerity to try to cut its way to growth, then the pushback is going to get louder, and that will create an opening for the NDP regardless of who the leader is.”