CANADA

Devine confronts his party’s troubles

DALE EISLER August 5 1985
CANADA

Devine confronts his party’s troubles

DALE EISLER August 5 1985

Devine confronts his party’s troubles

During the last Saskatchewan election campaign in April, 1982, Conservative Leader Grant Devine ridiculed then-premier Allan Blakeney’s New Democratic Party government—which claimed that the province was riding almost unscathed through the recession of that year—by asking voters: “Where’s the prosperity? Where’s the money in your jeans?” Now, three years after the landslide election victory that made Devine premier, his own administration is in trouble because of economic hard times. With unemployment rising and southern Saskatchewan farmland in the grip of a crippling drought,

Devine is now having second thoughts about the election that he had been expected to call next spring. In the blunt assessment of Ernest Ross, who farms near Gravelbourg, about 100 km south of Moose Jaw, Devine’s government is “going to have a hell of a time surviving if they don’t start moving their butts.”

In an obvious attempt to repair some of the political damage, Devine last week wound up a two-week tour aboard a rented Ford van equipped with a kitchen and office that took him to barbecues, casual political meetings and hand-shaking strolls along main streets across the province. Devine, 41, an agricultural economist turned politician who has made optimism his political trademark, listened to the problems of hard-pressed farmers and insisted that his government was still the best hope for the future. Devine got a warm reception in the south Saskatchewan community of Assiniboia two weeks ago with the announcement of a $60-a-head cash grant for cattlemen badly hit by drought and generous additions to the province’s crop insurance program. He told an audience at Eastend, in the province’s drought-stricken southwest: “I know what it is not to have a crop and have the banks tell you, ‘Look, boy, you

can’t make your payments.’ I can’t make it rain, but I can help provide feed, and I can provide whatever is needed.”

Despite that, there are signs that a steep decline in popularity has set in for a party that in 1982 decisively put an end to 11 years of NDP rule (standings in the 64-seat legislature, which rose for its

summer recess in June: Conservatives 54, NDP 8, independent 1, vacant 1). At a government planning session in July, cabinet ministers learned the results of a confidential poll by Decima Research Ltd. of Toronto. Though Tory sources firmly refused to divulge details, the survey apparently showed an ominous increase in the number of undecided voters. As well, a poll of 700 Regina residents in May by the independent polling company Regina ConsumerTrack indicated that 24.8 per cent preferred the NDP, while only 15.6 per cent backed the Conservatives. Another 4.1

per cent supported the provincial Liberals, while a total of 53.1 per cent were either undecided or would not say which party they supported. Noted ConsumerTrack president Larry Ellis: “Everything has gone soft as hell.”

Devine’s Conservatives have also suffered from a rash of political embarrassments and defections. Last year renegade Tory William Sveinson crossed the floor of the legislature to sit briefly as a Liberal and then as an independent. Another Tory, Regina MLA Russ Sutor, quit the legislature for business reasons in April. A more serious blow came in March when a byelection was held in the sprawling rural riding of Thunder Creek, which was declared vacant last year after Colin Thatcher, a former Devine cabinet minister, was convicted in the murder of his wife and sentenced to life in prison. Although the Tories held on to the riding, their support declined to 42.6 per cent of the vote from 61.7 in 1982, with Liberal support rising to 27.1 per cent of the vote from only 3.1 per cent in the last election. Another setback came last month when Prince Albert MLA I Paul Meagher declared •q he would not run for the z Conservatives again, and £ expressed unhappiness Q with the Devine govern i ment’s lack of “smallc 5 conservative” policies.

S The evidence of the slippage in Progressive Conservative fortunes has bolstered the spirit of the ousted NDP under Blakeney, 59, who appears to have silenced calls that he give way to a younger leader. “There has been a massive erosion of PC support,” said Blakeney last month. “It’s a case of a large undecided vote that is there to be had.” As well, political observers believe that a resurgence by the Liberals under Ralph Goodale, the former member of Parliament who took over as party leader just before the last provincial election, could rupture the coalition of Tory and Liberal voters that brought the Conservatives to power. With former

prime minister Pierre Trudeau gone from the national scene, and Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives in office, Devine no longer can rely on “fed-bashing” to gain points with Saskatchewanians. Said David Tkachuk, Devine’s principal secretary: “People want governments to get on with the job of solving problems.”

Devine’s Tories have sought to do that by steering a cautiously moderate course. Despite NDP predictions that the Tories would dismantle social programs, the Conservatives have only tinkered with details: welfare payments for single “employable” people were cut back, while payments to needy families were increased. The Tories also largely left in place the panoply of 24 provincial Crown corporations inherited from the NDP, although they eliminated three minor corporations and sharply curtailed the activities of the Saskatchewan Oil & Gas Corp. to allow more scope for private petroleum companies.

If that middle-of-the-road approach helped to forestall an anti-Conservative backlash, other issues have rankled with voters. Though Devine’s government made good on a key election promise by eliminating the NDP’S 20-per-cent gasoline tax—at a cost to the provincial treasury of $140 million in 1982—Regina has since imposed or extended equivalent amounts of taxes, including a fiveper-cent tax on used motor vehicles.

Even more damaging for Devine, the provincial economy has not gained strength despite tax breaks for industry and four successive Tory budgets that have raised the provincial deficit to $1.2 billion from a $139-million surplus when Devine was elected. With the farm economy shaken by two successive years of drought and the province’s potash industry languishing under the impact of low world prices, the unemployment rate in Saskatchewan in June was seven per cent (35,000 people). That is still the lowest provincial unemployment rate in the country, but well above the 4.1 per cent in the closing months of NDP rule.

Even though Devine could wait until April, 1987, to call an election, the premier as recently as last month insisted that “we are operating this government on a four-year cycle, and I stick to that.” Still, the political portents could yet persuade the premier to delay the election beyond next spring in the hope of an economic upturn. When he does decide to go to the polls, Devine’s Tories could still find themselves in trouble. Ken Waschuk of Regina’s Tanka Research, which carries out local polling for the Tories, notes that Saskatchewan has “a very demanding type of electorate.” And it is by no means clear that Devine’s Tories will be able to fulfil enough of those expectations by the time the next election comes around.

—DALE EISLER in Regina.