Canada

Seven in the fight

Whoever succeeds Roy Romanow in Saskatchewan will inherit an ailing NDP

Brian Bergman January 22 2001
Canada

Seven in the fight

Whoever succeeds Roy Romanow in Saskatchewan will inherit an ailing NDP

Brian Bergman January 22 2001

Seven in the fight

Canada

Whoever succeeds Roy Romanow in Saskatchewan will inherit an ailing NDP

Brian Bergman

in Rosetown, Sask.

It was a silence that spoke volumes. During a New Democratic Party forum at the Elk's hall in Rosetown, Sask., last week, the seven leadership contenders seeking to succeed Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow were presented with written questions from the audience. If elected party leader and premier on Jan. 27, asked one, would any of them consider calling a snap provincial election? Normally eager to scamper to the podium’s only microphone, all seven candidates remained firmly glued to their folding metal chairs. Their facial grimaces and body language announced that none of them had any intention of seeking the people’s verdict anytime soon. Next question, please.

Small wonder. Just 16 months ago, Romanows government, first elected in 1991, endured a near-death experience at the polls. The Saskatchewan Party— an amalgam of disaffected Conservatives and Liberals—swept rural Saskatchewan, took the largest percentage of

the popular vote provincewide and came within a whisker of assuming office, winning 26 seats, compared with 29 for the NDP and three for the Liberals. A humbled Romanow struck a deal with the Liberal MLAs to form a coalition government. In September, he announced his resignation, pending a leadership contest.

Since its near-defeat, the NDP’s prospects have, if anything, worsened. Certainly, the province’s hard-pressed farmers seem unforgiving. “Rural Saskatchewan is not just mad at the NDP, it’s mad at government,” says University of Saskatchewan political scientist John Courtney. The chief beneficiary of their wrath is Elwin Hermanson, a 48-year-old farmer and one-time Reform MP who took the helm of the Saskatchewan Party in April, 1998.

Hermanson’s presence was palpable at last week’s leadership forums in Saskatoon, Regina and Rosetown, a farming community 120 km southwest of Saskatoon. The contenders—former and current NDP cabinet ministers Lome Calvert, Chris Axworthy, Joanne Crof-

ford, Maynard Sonntag and Buckley Belanger, as well as farm activist Nettie Wiebe and lawyer Scott Banda—spent more time attacking Hermanson than one another. Among other things, they accused him of being hell-bent on privatizing health care, destroying the province’s hard-earned fiscal stability through reckless tax cuts and otherwise turning Saskatchewan into “Alberta East”—a reference to Hermanson’s constant refrain that the province must do

people to its more prosperous neighbour.

Most of the candidates were much more subdued when describing how they would govern differently from Romanow. It is a delicate point. Romanow, 61, is widely credited with rescuing the province from bankruptcy after inheriting a crippling $842-million annual deficit from the outgoing Conservatives in 1991. But in the process, he closed hospitals and cut municipal and education funding—policies that often angered traditional NDP supporters.

Ironically, the two perceived frontrunners in the leadership race are the ones most closely associated with Romanows style of governing. Calvert, 48, a former minister of health and social services, argues the austerity program was a necessary evil. But now, he adds, “we are in a position to make more progress on social fronts.” Axworthy, 53, is even more plainly cut from the same pragmatic cloth as Romanow. A former law professor, Axworthy served 11 years as an NDP MP before securing a provincial seat and being appointed justice minister in 1999. “To win the next election, we have to build a coalition beyond the hard-core NDP supporters,” he says. “This means appealing to people who will not vote for us if the party takes a turn to the traditional left.”

Hermanson’s assessment of his potential rivals? “None of them really concerns me,” he sniffs. Some, he adds, are too tied to the Romanow legacy, while others “seem to be trying to win favour with party members by pushing for even bigger government. That just won’t wash with voters.” This month’s leadership convention marks the end of one political contest—and the beginning of a far nastier battle. EU