For Roy Romanow, the first 10 months as Saskatchewan’s NDP premier have been a series of painful choices. Saddled with the highest per capita debt of any provincial government in Canada and a farm-based economy that has been battered by years of drought and low grain prices, the 53year-old premier has administered some of the harshest economic measures in his province’s 87-year history. In its first budget, delivered in May, the Romanow government cut hospital funding by 5.5 per cent over the next two years, slashed 500 civil service jobs and imposed a 10-per-cent across-the-board surtax on all income earners to try to help retire a $13.8billion accumulated debt. For Romanow, a lawyer who became a member of the NDP in the early 1960s shortly after former Saskatchewan NDP premier Tommy Douglas introduced Canada’s first medicare program, the toughest decision was to take the scalpel to the province’s cherished health care plan.
“We can’t afford any sacred cows,” Romanow told Maclean’s, “or we risk losing the entire herd.”
Romanow’s determination to rein in spending has been mirrored in British Columbia, where NDP Leader Michael Harcourt led his party to victory in October,
1991, on a promise of modest social reform and a balanced provincial budget within five years. The economic policies of both western NDP governments stand in sharp contrast to the example set by Ontario NDP Premier Bob Rae, who, during his first year in office, opted for a large increase in government borrowing in an effort to spur economic growth and to cushion the blow for those hardest hit by the recession. More recently, Rae has taken modest measures to control the deficit, but major policy differences between Ontario and the western NDP provinces remain.
The Romanow and Harcourt governments have taken a much more cautious approach to social change, including labor reform and pay equity. And they appear determined to avoid the bitterness that has often strained relations between the Rae administration and Ontario’s business community. Said Saskatoon NDP MLA
Patricia Atkinson: “There are many people in our caucus who believe that confrontation is not the way to solve problems anymore. You have to find consensus.”
The caution demonstrated by both western NDP governments is partly in response to the Ontario experience. When they were campaigning for office last fall, Romanow and Harcourt tried to fend off opposition accusations that they would emulate Ontario spending practices. But provincial New Democrats in Saskatchewan and British Columbia had also been expecting to form governments—and they were well prepared when the time came. By comparison, most Ontario NDP politicians were surprised by their victory in 1990. Said Kenneth Georgetti, president of the B.C. Federation of Labor and a longtime supporter of the provincial NDP: “We had more preparation. We were more mature. They [New Democrats in Ontario] had no notion they were going to be elected.”
The differences between western and Ontario social democrats also have deep historical roots. In Saskatchewan, the NDP and its precursor, the CCF,’ have ruled the province for 32 of the past 48 years. Over that time, the party earned a reputation for combining a progressive social agenda with balanced budgets. The need for restraint was hammered home repeatedly by o Douglas’s treasurer, Clarté ence Fines, who frequently § spoke out against large gov§ emment borrowing be“ cause, he claimed, it would “make bankers rich.”
By contrast, the provincial Conservative government led by Grant Devine racked up nine consecutive deficit budgets between 1982 and 1991. Says University of Saskatchewan political scientist David Smith: “By the time he came to power, Romanow had no intention of spending his way out of the province’s depression.”
In British Columbia, many NDP members are still haunted by the memories of their last taste of power: the widely criticized administration of former Premier David Barrett, which governed the province from 1972 to 1975. Barrett’s interventionist programs, capped by the creation of a provincially owned oil-and-gas
company, inspired the New York City-based financial weekly Barrons to refer to the premier as the “Allende of the North”—a reference to the former Marxist president of Chile, Salvador Allende. “The prevailing view is that the Barrett government tried to do too much too soon,” said University of British Columbia political scientist Paul Tennant. “As a result, the NDP is almost obsessed with avoiding the mistakes of the past.”
Consensus: In both cases, the moderate tone of the western NDP governments is set by their leaders, who each took over the helm of their parties in 1987. Harcourt is a lawyer and former mayor of Vancouver whose low-key personal style and penchant for seeking consensus on contentious issues earned him the nickname “Moderate Mike.” Romanow, who first won a seat in the Saskatchewan legislature in 1967, later served for 11 years as attorney general, deputy premier and constitutional point man under former premier Allan Blakeney. Now, Romanow frequently muses about how the grim state of the province’s economy has compelled his party to emphasize wealth creation rather than wealth redistribution. “Applying a social democratic theory to this is not easy,” he told Maclean ’s. “Our traditional philosophy is being challenged and tested.”
That combination of cautious leadership and depressed economic conditions has led the NDP in both Saskatchewan and British Columbia to water down—or shelve indefinitely—many long-cherished social and economic initiatives. Although committed in principle to pay equity for women in the public sector, both governments have done little more than study how the policy has been implemented in other jurisdictions, including Ontario. Neither is seriously considering following Ontario’s lead in extending pay equity to the private sector. Harcourt, for one, is unapologetic about his government’s slow response. “My commitment to the people of British Columbia is clear,” he says. “If the funding isn’t there, we won’t spend it.” Harcourt and Romanow are also clearly
anxious to avoid antagonizing their respective business communities. In British Columbia, the NDP came to power promising the swift repeal of sections of the former Social Credit government’s labor code, which many union members found offensive. Instead, in February, the administration turned the issue over to a tribunal made up of nominees from labor, management and an arbitrator acceptable to both. The tribunal’s recommendations, none of which are expected to be far-reaching, will be issued in the fall.
In Saskatchewan, the Romanow government is pursuing a similar policy. Last month, the Romanow government abandoned proposed legislation that would have prevented non-unionized companies, who were previously allowed to bid on government contracts during the Devine years, from continuing to do so. Instead, the legislature passed a bill that imposed restrictions only on non-unionized companies that begin operation after the law takes effect. The change came after a coalition of 13 Saskatchewan business groups took their concerns about the new labor law and other pro-
posed initiatives directly to Romanow. According to Dale Botting, a Regina-based director for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business and co-chairman of the new coalition, Romanow has also undertaken to consult extensively with business and labor groups on future legislation that affects their interests. “We’re all very conscious of the acrimony that has arisen in Ontario,” said Botting. “We don’t want to get into the situation of digging trenches and lobbing hand grenades across some no man’s land.”
Reversal: Despite the economic constraints, both western NDP governments have taken a few bold steps. Last December, B.C. Aboriginal Affairs Minister Andrew Petter announced that the new government would recognize aboriginal title and the right of natives to govern themselves—a dramatic reversal of positions held by B.C. governments dating back to the province’s entry into Confederation in 1871. And last month, the Saskatchewan NDP unveiled some of the most far-reaching reforms to the province’s health care system since the introduction of medicare. Among the
proposed changes: the government will increase local control over health care by appointing up to 30 new regional health boards across the province, each of which will control the health care budget and direct the way services are delivered over a given geographical area.
Still, the pace of reform is painfully slow for some party activists. Saskatoon MLA Atkinson, for one, ticks off a list of social objectives that she had hoped the NDP could pursue once in office. Among them: increased funding for social housing, day care and drug-and-alcohol treatment centres, and eliminating the need for food banks. Atkinson, a former teacher who served as her party’s health critic while in opposition, says that it is “gut-wrenching” to be told that most of those goals are out of reach until the province’s economy is stronger. She added: “I spent 10 years involved in politics only to get elected and not be able to do the things that I consider important.”
BRIAN BERGMAN with DALE EISLER in Regina and STEVE WEATHERBE in Victoria
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