CANADA FOCUS SASKATCHEWAN

Romanow's reign

The premier has found a winning strategy

DALE EISLER December 1 1997
CANADA FOCUS SASKATCHEWAN

Romanow's reign

The premier has found a winning strategy

DALE EISLER December 1 1997

Romanow's reign

The premier has found a winning strategy

DALE EISLER

CANADA FOCUS SASKATCHEWAN

It was one of those moments of self-deprecating humor that, in retrospect, sounded like a prediction. Shortly before becoming premier of Saskatchewan in 1991,

Roy Romanow could not resist poking fun at his image among some New Democrats who questioned his allegiance to the hard-and-fast principles of social democracy. Being Saskatchewan—birthplace of the NDP’s forerunner, the Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation, and Canada’s first medicare system—

NDP leaders are expected to measure up to such icons as Tommy Douglas. So, rather than defend his fidelity to a party he joined in the midst of the 1962 medicare debate,

Romanow decided on levity. “You know me,” he told a reporter. “I’m bound and determined to give Saskatchewan people the Liberal government they’ve always wanted.”

Six years later, at the midpoint of his government’s second term, some believe Romanow has lived up to his word, even if he was only joking. Although the New Democrats inherited a financially crippled province— after nine years of Grant Devine’s Tories, the annual deficit had ballooned to $842 million—they brought down a balanced budget in 1994,

Saskatchewan’s first in 13 years.

Along the way, Romanow has presided over a massive restructuring of the province’s health-care system (including the closure of 52 rural hospitals) , cut grants to municipal governments, reduced education spending and raised taxes. But unlike other governments in a fiscally conservative age, he stopped short of cutting welfare benefits. And now, with his government headed for its fourth consecutive budgetary surplus, sources say Romanow intends to make his mark on the social policy front with an initiative in next spring’s budget to attack family poverty.

In short, his is a government guided by pragmatism and a social conscience—the winning strategy used for decades by the federal Liberals. And so far, that approach has been just as successful for Romanow. His government’s approval rating consistently runs at 60 per cent or better, and there is little sign of any major erosion in NDP support. “There’s no doubt Romanow has been given credit for running a tight ship and getting the province back on its feet,” says Russ Eaton, president of Regina-based polling firm Decision Research. “There’s a sense things are back under control.”

But in the turbulent world of Saskatchewan politics, voter loyalty can swing rapidly from one side of the political spectrum to the other. And Romanow’s popularity may be as much a result of the fractured state of the political opposition as it is of his government’s record. The ongoing fraud trials involving former members of the Devine government have turned into Canada’s longest-running political scandal. So far, 10 former MLAs and two caucus employees have been found guilty of taking part in an $850,000 fraud involving allowances for communicating with constituents. Last week, the trial of an 11th MLA continued while five more Saskatchewan Tories awaited hearings. Among them is Senator Eric Berntson, a deputy premier in Devine’s government, who is charged with fraudulently taking $68,055 from his communications allowance, as well as illegally funnelling $125,000 in Tory caucus funds to the party. He has pleaded not guilty to both charges.

For the once-mighty Tories, the damage has been fatal. In early November, the party decided to suspend operations for at least the next two elections. As a result, many Conservatives have decided to cast their lot with the Saskatchewan Party, created last August when four Tory MLAs and four disillusioned Liberals banded together in the legislature to form the official Opposition. Borrowing heavily from federal Reform policies such as the recall of politicians, smaller government and lower taxes, the party—which held its first convention last week in Saskatoon—hopes to become the dominant right-wing alternative to the NDP. “There was just no point continuing,” concedes former Tory leader Bill Boyd, a driving force behind the creation of the new party. “With the trials dragging on, we were facing a hopeless situation.” Still, the decision to drive a stake through the heart of the Conservatives was far from unanimous. “I am ashamed by the scandal, but those people a are no longer part of the party and

I think we should have pressed on 2 and weathered the storm,” laments | Saskatoon lawyer Nick Stooshinoff, g who took over the Tory presidency | in 1995. I

The situation for the Liberals is “ scarcely better. Internal divisions and personality conflicts led to the 1995 ouster of former leader Lynda Haverstock, who now sits as an independent MIA Things have not improved under new leader Jim Melenchuk, who grimly watched his party’s status as Official Opposition dissolve last summer as five of his 11 MLAs deserted, four to the Saskatchewan Party and one to sit as an independent with Haverstock. Some Liberals are saying privately that Melenchuk, a medical doctor who lacks a seat in the legislature, should resign so the party can rally around a new leader. But others fear that deposing another leader will further damage the party’s flagging credibility.

With the Liberals in disarray and the Saskatchewan Party in its embryonic stages, Romanow’s hold on power appears firm. The NDP has been the dominant party in the province for 37 of the past 53 years. And Romanow, first elected to the legislature in 1967, is one of Canada’s most resilient politicians. As attorney general in the Alan Blakeney government, he was a key behind-the-scenes figure, together with Jean Chrétien, in finding the formula that led to the patriation of the Constitution in 1982. As premier, meanwhile, Romanow

has maintained a high-profile role in unity issues, while often talking about the need to redefine social democracy in an era when deficit fighting and free trade have limited government’s ability to intervene in the economy.

THE MIDDLE ROAD

Unlike several of his counterparts, Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow has presided over cuts in government spending with relatively little protest from voters. Now midway through his second term, boasting a balanced budget but facing a new challenge from the embryonic Saskatchewan Party Romanow spoke to Maclean’s Calgary correspondent Dale Eisler. Excerpts:

Maclean’s: The Saskatchewan Party is presenting itself as a right-of-centre alternative to the NDP. Do you see it as a threat?

Romanow: It could be. But as we head into the 21st century, I don’t think the politics of confrontation, which is what the Saskatchewan Party in many ways represents, is where the public is at.

The mood says a balanced, moderate, progressive approach to fiscal and social policy is the best way to keep our economic renaissance alive, while at the same time meeting the needs of people. The policies of the Saskatchewan Party are not in the mainstream—I believe the predominant mood in Saskatchewan is non-extremist.

Maclean’s: Critics say that you have balanced your budget largely through tax increases, and that the NDP remains a party of big government. How do you respond?

Romanow: The fact is, the Fraser Institute and the Investment Dealers Association of Canada have said on a per capita basis we have the smallest or second smallest government in Canada. As for tax levels, we’d like to reduce them and we have where we’ve been able. The sales tax has been cut from nine to seven per cent [the Romanow government itself had raised it to nine in 1992], the income tax debt surcharge has been reduced by $150 a person and we’ve made other targeted tax cuts.

Maclean’s: But critics say your government has abandoned its principles, and that your brand of fiscal conservatism is no different from that of other governments.

Romanow: Back in 1944, Tommy Douglas faced the same problems of debt we confronted. It took him 18 years before he introduced medicare because he waited until the province was able to afford it, and he had much of his debt forgiven by the federal government.

When we took office, Saskatchewan’s debt was held by international bondholders and they are less sympathetic. Secondly, while we have made cuts, we’ve done it within a social democratic framework. If you compare us to others, I think you’ll find that we always sought to protect the weakest and most vulnerable.

Ultimately, his political foes say, the Romanow approach will fail. “Saskatchewan people pay the highest taxes in Canada— and yet see services deteriorating,” says Saskatchewan Party interim leader Ken Krawetz. “Sure, Romanow had sympathy when he had to fight the deficit mess. Those days, though, are gone.” Perhaps. But until a credible alternative emerges from the rubble of the Saskatchewan opposition, Romanow’s mild brand of socialism looks like the only game in town. □