Politics

GRUMPY AND GRUMPIER

Voters are in no mood to be kind to sitting premiers

BRIAN BERGMAN November 3 2003
Politics

GRUMPY AND GRUMPIER

Voters are in no mood to be kind to sitting premiers

BRIAN BERGMAN November 3 2003

GRUMPY AND GRUMPIER

Politics

Voters are in no mood to be kind to sitting premiers

BRIAN BERGMAN

“IT’S TIME FOR A CHANGE.”

Has there ever been an opposition leader in the history of election campaigning who has not uttered those five little words? Whether they are heeded usually depends on just how fed up voters are with the government of the day. And judging by the seven provincial elections held to date this year, Canadians are in a particularly grumpy mood. In Quebec, Ontario and last week in Newfoundland, long-standing governments of various political stripes were not only defeated, but thoroughly trounced. In New Brunswick, Premier Bernard Lord fared only slightly better, as public fury over skyrocketing auto insurance rates reduced his iron grip on power to a tenuous grasp. True enough, Manitoba’s Gary Doer, Nova Scotia’s John Hamm and Prince Edward Island’s Pat Binns were all returned to office by comfortable margins. But in each case, there was a palpable lack of enthusiasm about the exercise—as if, given better alternatives, voters might have also opted to topple and turf.

Which brings us to Saskatchewan, where a party that didn’t even exist seven years ago stands an excellent chance of defeating the province’s 12-year-old NDP government. The Saskatchewan Party, an amalgam of disaffected Conservatives and Liberals who formed their own “unite-the-right” movement in 1997, was brimming with confidence last week as the Nov. 5 election date approached. Leader Elwin Hermanson, a farmer and former Reform MP, depicted Premier Lome Calvert’s NDP as a spent force with no new answers to heal the province’s ailing economy and stem the perennial exodus of young people. Hermanson—wait for it—figures it’s time for a change. “Voters will put up with a government to the point where they can’t risk doing so any longer,” he told Maclean’s. “Saskatchewan is at that point.”

In truth, Saskatchewan got a head start on the rebellious mood now gripping the nation. Entering the 1999 provincial election, the NDP’s Roy Romanow was widely considered a shoo-in to win a third consecutive majority. But no one accounted for the frustration among farmers, many of them on the brink of bankruptcy due to low commodity prices. The upstart Saskatchewan Party swept the rural ridings and enjoyed a slight edge in the province-wide popular vote. The NDP— which won 29 seats, compared to 26 for the Saskatchewan Party and three for the Liberals—clung to power by forming a coalition with the Liberals and appointing two of their members to cabinet. Calvert, a former United Church minister, took over from a retiring Romanow in February 2001.

Since Calvert assumed the helm, University of Saskatchewan political scientist Cristine de Clercy has seen little to suggest the Saskatchewan Party’s momentum has slowed. If anything, says de Clercy, the NDP appears to be scrambling to keep the few rural seats it has, while the Saskatchewan Party may make inroads in the cities, with more moderate policies and far more credible candidates than it fielded in 1999.

Hermanson’s party is also positioning itself as the agent of hope, with promises to boost the economy through corporate tax cuts and increase the province’s sagging population by 100,000 people over 10 years. “Most experts think such projections are entirely unrealistic,” says de Clercy, “but I haven’t heard a lot of public criticism because the idea is appealing.” By contrast, she adds, Calvert inherited “a very old government, many of whose stars had already moved on. There isn’t much new there to excite voters.”

EVEN when incumbents were returned to office, there was a lack of enthusiasm about the electoral process

It didn’t help the NDP’s cause that, within days of the election call, a widely circulated e-mail cartoon by a senior party staffer depicted Hermanson as a concentration camp commandant herding New Democrats onto rail cars. Calvert promptly apologized, both to Hermanson and to Jewish leaders. While the furor over what local wags dubbed “cartoongate” has abated, it still hits at what many consider Calvert’s greatest strengths—a reputation for decency and trustworthiness.

For all of that, the NDP cannot be written off lightly. In power for 43 of the past 59 years, it is Saskatchewan’s natural governing party—and renowned for fielding a formidable cadre of campaign foot soldiers. Certainly its general, who remains focused on attacking the Saskatchewan Party as a band of radical conservatives, wants nothing to do with defeatist chatter. Interviewed as he watched the results coming in from Newfoundland, Calvert said he saw no similar thirst for change in his province. “Conventional political wisdom would say that’s going to be a big issue in this campaign,” he says. “But my sense is it’s not as significant as one might have predicted.” In what amounts to an annus horribilis for sitting premiers, Calvert can only hope his political antennae are in top working order. lí1]