Canada

A case of Prairie pragmatism

The NDP looks for votes in the middle of the road

Brian Bergman September 20 1999
Canada

A case of Prairie pragmatism

The NDP looks for votes in the middle of the road

Brian Bergman September 20 1999

A case of Prairie pragmatism

Canada

The NDP looks for votes in the middle of the road

Brian Bergman

Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow once joked that his destiny was “to give Saskatchewan people the Liberal government they always wanted.” For one of the most successful New Democratic Party politicians in recent memory, the remark was a sly reference to Romanows ability to tack left or right as the political winds demand— much in the manner of the perpetually ruling Liberals in Ottawa. Last week, as he sailed towards what was widely expected to be a third consecutive majority government in the Sept. 16 provincial election, Romanow was proving once again that, in Canada, riding the middle ground is often the surest path to power. “What we have here is what I like to call a new style of social democracy for the new world,” Romanow told Macleans during a break from campaigning in Regina. “We’ve had to square the circle by developing a movement that is honest to the principles of Tommy Douglas, but able to respond to the new global forces of change.”

In neighbouring Manitoba, another veteran NDP leader is trying to lift a page from the Romanow playbook. Throughout the campaign leading up to the Sept. 21 Manitoba election, Gary Doer has promoted himself as the leader of “today’s NDP”—a not-so-subtle attempt to dissociate himself from the taxand-spend image that has often plagued his party. Doer, who has led the NDP through 11 years in opposition, is striving to convince voters that the party is far more business-friendly and fiscally responsible than it has sometimes appeared in the past. The effort seems to be paying off Recent public opinion polls show Doer in a neck-and-neck race with three-term Conservative Premier Gary Filmon, while the provincial Liberals lag a distant third.

The NDP’s Prairie pragmatism has led to some intriguing role reversals in the two election campaigns. Romanows high standing among voters is, in large part, due to his success in leading the province out of the financial morass created in the 1980s by former premier Grant Devine’s free-spending Conservative government. Doer, meanwhile, is keeping his election promises small and inexpensive while erstwhile deficit fighter Filmon is offering voters a tantalizing $ 1 billion in tax cuts and new spending initiatives.

Beyond such ironies, though, the two elections are quite separate contests, propelled by very different political dynamics. In Saskatchewan, Romanow has benefited mightily from a badly splintered and inexperienced opposidon. The Tories, driven from office in 1991 after running up an annual $842million deficit, were further demoralized by criminal corruption charges laid against more than 15 MLAs and party workers who served under Devine. The party formally folded its tent in 1997, giving rise to the Saskatchewan Party, an amalgam of former Tory and disaffected Liberal MLAs. While Saskatchewan Party Leader Elwin Herm an son, a feisty farmer and ex-Reform MP, is making inroads in rural Saskatchewan, his campaign has been plagued by a series of rookie gaffes. Perhaps the most embarrassing: public statements by Ontario-based ad executive and party consultant Brian Thomas that the Saskatchewan Party was testing attack ads in an attempt to get inside of “the wee little heads” of voters. The party abrupdy fired Thomas, saying it could not accept the inference that Saskatchewan residents were stupid.

An Angus Reid Group poll released last week showed Romanows NDP enjoying the support of 47 per cent of decided voters, compared with 35 per cent for the Saskatchewan Party and 14 per cent for the Liberals. A raucous leaders’ debate held last week did little to shift public opinion, with the Saskatchewan Party leader striking some observers as particularly strident. “Mr. Hermanson needs to establish his bona fides,” says University of Saskatchewan political scientist David Smith. “You can’t do that by trying to shout down the other guy.”

The tone—if not always the content—of debate has been a little more civil in Manitoba. Filmon entered the 35-day campaign hobbled by the taint of scandal. An independent inquiry confirmed last March that five senior Conservatives, including the premier’s own chief of staff, had conspired to recruit and fund independent native candidates in the 1995 provincial election in an attempt to divert votes from the NDP The same Tories later engaged in a coverup. The inquiry accepted Filmons assertion that he had no prior knowledge of the plot or the coverup.

Since he couldn’t change the facts, Filmon tried to change the subject. The wily premier dominated the early stages of the campaign by issuing a promise a day, which, when tallied up, amounted to an eye-catching $1-billion price tag. Calling it his 50-50 plan, Filmon vowed to chop provincial taxes by $500 million and increase spending in key areas such as health care and education by another $500 million—all the while balancing the budget.

It was an uncharacteristically bold move for Filmon who, during 11 years in power, cautiously reined in spending and offered only modest tax cuts. According to University of Manitoba political scientist Paul Thomas, Filmons election strategy carries both potential rewards and risks. The chief reward—in the form of a rare fourth term in office-—will come if Filmon is correct in assuming that the voters, after years of fiscal restraint, are ready for a little relief. The main risk, adds Thomas, is if “he has gone overboard and promised more than what people find credible. One of the main reasons for public cynicism about politicians is their habit of overpromising and under-delivering.”

While Filmons election promises have grabbed headlines, the voterigging scandal continues to haunt him. During a provincially televised CBC leaders’ debate last week, moderator Diana Swain asked the premier why Manitobans should believe he would surround himself with honest people if re-elected. Filmon, who often looked testy and uncomfortable during the hour-long debate, once again expressed his personal dismay over the way some of his closest aides had deceived him, which he compared to betrayal by an adulterous spouse. While Filmon said he had taken steps to make sure it would never happen again, Doer, for one, wasn’t letting him off the hook. He accused the premier of “a complete abdication of leadership.”

Doer later told Macleans that voter cynicism over the vote-rigging scandal “is the sleeping tiger at the doorstep. Mr. Filmons view that it’s behind him is not true.” But political analysts caution the NDP leader against playing that card too heavily. After so many years in opposition, says Thomas, the biggest knock against Doer is the perception that he is unrelentingly negative. It is a view Filmon is eager to propagate. “Manitobans have had enough of the mudslinging of Mr. Doer,” the premier declared during last week’s debate. “They want somebody who has a plan for the future, who doesn’t just criticize the other guy’s plan.” With the election clock ticking, the mud may be just starting to fly from all directions.