When Saskatchewan Premier Allan Blakeney announced a provincial election for April 26, the call to arms was greeted by many in the government ranks with a confidence bordering on bravado. The fabled Saskatchewan New Democratic machine had been revving its well-oiled engines for weeks in advance. Then Blakeney made it clear that he would seek a new mandate on the highly popular issue of fending off unthinkable attacks by Ottawa on the sacred Crowsnest Pass rate. Little seemed to stand in the way of the party’s fourth successive election victory. But as the campaign headed into its final week, there were surprising danger signals for Blakeney’s 11-year-old government.
Those perils were reflected in party polls, by both the NDP and the Conservatives, which indicated that the outcome was far from decided. Not only that, but Attorney General Roy Romanow himself admitted that all was not well. On the eve of the election call Romanow, a member of the NDP campaign strategy committee, had fearlessly predicted a minimum of 50 NDP seats, up from the current 44, in the 64-seat legislature.*
*Three seats have been added since dissolution, when standings were NDP 44, PCs 15, Independents two.
At a mid-campaign rally in Carrot River, however, the confidence had ebbed from Romanow’s voice considerably, and he confessed: “I have to admit we have a fight on our hands. In fact, I could see us losing a few seats.”
The problem for the NDP appeared to be that it had underestimated the depth of anti-government sentiment welling up among the voters. It was embodied in the rise of the separatist Western Canada Concept (WCC) party. The organization did not have a leader or a single candidate two weeks before the writ was dropped on March 29, but it had 40 candidates in the field when nominations closed April 10.
The real challenge, however, was clearly coming from the Opposition Progressive Conservatives.
The first two weeks of the 28-day campaign were dominated by Tory promises, the most appealing of which was a pledge to eliminate the provincial road tax on gasoline that leader Grant Devine said would mean a saving of 40 cents a gallon. The Tories dipped deeper into their bag of goodies to promise subsidized mortgages at 1314 per cent interest, free telephones for senior citizens, a 10-per-cent reduction in the provincial personal income tax and loans to young farmers at bargain-basement rates of eight per cent.
Using Decima Research Ltd. of Toronto to track voter opinions, the Tories were touting a poll done in early April showing them only one per cent behind the NDP.
The poll was stoically shrugged off as “jigged up” by NDP Campaign Chairman Bill Knight. Still, the fast start by the Tories jolted new life into what had been a lethargic NDP campaign (helped not at all by union demonstrators upset with back-to-work legislation brought in to end a strike of hospital support workers). Said Knight, promising the NDP campaign would soon pick up steam: “You have to let the gopher out of the hole before you can start shooting. Now we know where the Tories stand.”
With the Easter weekend out of the way, the NDP took its turn at filling the voters’ election plate. Among the NDP promises last week was a universal, nopremium dental-care program, $2,000 grants to first-time Saskatchewan home buyers and the elimination of
school property taxes on homes, farms and small businesses. If the election promises would not prove enough to wrench the wheels off the Tory bandwagon, the NDP was convinced that the contrasting leadership profiles of Blakeney vs. Devine—who has failed in two attempts to get a seat in the legislature—would reverse any flow to the Tories.
Leading the attack on Devine’s credibility was Blakeney himself, who ridiculed the seatless Opposition leader as “Mr. Incredible” because of the extravagant Tory promises that, the premier said, would cost at least $750 million to put into place the first year. It was uncharacteristic of Blakeney to sink into name-calling, even on the election
stump. The fact that he did resort to personal barbs added fuel to the belief that the NDP was worried that voters might indeed be rising to the PC promises.
While the NDP has its own poll of 29 swing ridings in the province that shows a neck-and-neck race in a straight NDP-PC showdown, the bevy of WCC candidates and a full slate of Liberals could easily cut into the Tory vote. The Tories say that their polls showed the WCC with barely three per cent support, but the NDP argues that it was closer to nine per cent—which would be more than enough to bleed off Tory support in close ridings and give the NDP the victory that seems not to be the sure thing it once appeared.
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