The Saskatchewan election campaign kicked off a full month before the election call, complete with wall-to-wall government advertising and the unveiling of the governing New Democratic Party’s “Wolf In Sheeps Clothing” attack ad against the opposition Saskatchewan Party. The NDF ad was originally intended to suggest that the Saskatchewan Party was the old Conservative Party under a new guise as represented by a dog-like wolf in sheep’s clothing. (For those who are unfamiliar with Saskatchewan politics, the New Democratic Party is on the left and the Saskatchewan Party is somewhat to right of them.)
But ironically, it was the SaskParty who did the unveiling. The latest in a summer’s full of leaks from NDP inner circles, the spot was renamed “Lambchop, The Dog-Faced Sheep” and ridiculed before the ad could even be launched. But launch it the NDP did, albeit with a more sinister looking “wolf” in place of the decidedly Alaskan Malamutish “dog” of the original version.
He must have enjoyed the ridicule, for when Premier Lorne Calvert finally dropped the writ (for November 7th) last week, he followed by teasing that Saskatchewan residents could expect the “the boldest new social program in Canada in a decade or longer.”
That program is a universal drug plan that would cap approved medications at $15 for every Saskatchewan resident, regardless of age or means. Unsurprisingly, no costing for the program was provided.
The response was immediate and overwhelmingly negative. The NDP drug plan proposal quickly became dubbed “the answer to a question no one was asking.” With 43 cents of every government budget dollar already spent on health care in the province, it reminded voters of the existing, unsolved problems of ER and bed closures, long waiting lists for diagnostics and surgery, and doctor and nursing shortages. A universal drug plan was seen as a blatant vote-buying exercise, that if implemented would only divert scarce tax dollars from more pressing needs.
And it might have been the end of the beginning for the governing NDP, had it not been for the race of the SaskParty to join them in the crosshairs.
Before the critics’ ink had dried, Sask party had responded with a “while you’re slapping them around, don’t forget us” by proposing a stripped down version of a drug plan for seniors and youth, complete with the same $15 cap. The best that could be said for the plan was that it was “a less expensive answer to a question no one was asking.”
There’s a saying about never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity. While three weeks yet remain, the drug plan debacle may, in the end, serve as a metaphor for the entire campaign.
A month ago, a 16 year old union-led NDP government was bracing to survive a wave of attitudinal change sweeping over a province that has finally glimpsed “this year country” might finally be Saskatchewan.
With the second largest oil reserves in Canada (recent exploration hints that Saskatchewan’s oil sands reserves may rival those of Alberta), 25% of the planet’s uranium deposits, the source of 33% of world potash supplies, more arable land than all other provinces in Canada combined, and prices for energy, mining and agricultural commodities at near record levels, optimism for the prairie province’s long term economic health has zoomed. These prospects spurred a flirtation with the type of pro-free enterprise attitude whose absence has so long distinguished resource-rich and socialism-poor Saskatchewan from its more prosperous neighbor to the west.
Yet, despite these positives, the province’s population still can’t manage to top the 1 million mark. It is still leaking people. And private enterprise is still twitchy about making significant investments in the province.
The long-standing exodus of Saskatchewan youth to more prosperous regions has created a “donut” demographic, with the very young and elderly representing disproportionate ratios of the population, and the predictable drain on social and health resources.
Add to that a tradition of left-leaning governments with a taste for “crown corporation” ownership, unfriendly tax regimes and powerful labour laws, along with opportunistic “public investment” in vote-generating business ventures – and private capital long ago fled to other jurisdictions to invest.
This situation didn’t come about by accident. While it seems cliche to mention it some 70 years later, the psychology behind what has been called Saskatchewan’s “politics of fear and envy” still traces its origins to the dustbowl depression of the 1930′s and the profound psychic impact it had on the province and its politics. It was in the dustbowl era that the predecessor to the NDP, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) was born. The CCF pledged that they would not “rest content until it has eradicated capitalism and put into operation the full programme of socialized planning,” a program that has adherents in the province and some would argue – in the NDP government – to this day.
To illustrate how strongly this mentality still pervades within elements of their base, the New Democrat campaign “wolf” ads warn that the SaskParty would “turn Saskatchewan into a carbon copy of Alberta.”
In essence, the ad expects voters to regard the prospect of becoming like Alberta — the principle driver of the Canadian economy (with a growth rate of over 4% GDP), where more jobs were created in 2006 than all other provinces combined – a province that collects no provincial sales tax and has no provincial debt – a fate too ghastly to contemplate.
The ad plays on these ridiculous fears because it works and some voters will undoubtedly reject the SaskParty on that account. Only in Saskatchewan can the phrase “quality of life” be synonymous with both “moral superiority” and “lower standard of living.”
So, with the first week of campaigning behind us, the difference between the two parties reduces to a single word – change. Are we to resist Alberta-like change, as the NDP warns, or embrace the half-hearted “we promise to be careful” change offered by the SaskParty.
In this most political of provinces (the only one in which both major parties are home grown) it won’t be those of the entrenched rural right or labour left who decide the outcome. The decision will ultimately lie with the middle-of-the-road swing voters. Will they be ready to sweep 16 years of socialist government aside for a slightly less left-of-center version?
Has the premier’s 4 year project of civil servant hiring been negated by the more recent influx of private sector migrants following the economic boom? The abundance of Alberta license plates in evidence these days suggests it might be so. (Providing they vote.)
And perhaps the most important question of all – will the Saskatchewan Party leave the security of pre-election poll results showing their party with a wide lead to campaign like a government in waiting? Is SaskParty leader Brad Wall going to step up his “football dad” image and act like a premier?
Will he lead the wave or just hope to ride the “change for change’s sake” trend to victory?
At the moment, there is a sense of the latter. He may passively ride the trend. The SaskParty platform, while well thought out and publicly detailed, is decidedly tepid. The campaign style seems haunted by the fear of misstep. They’ve forgotten that battles aren’t won by keeping one’s head low.
There is a sense here that this is a province that is ready to take off economically and demographically. Property values are rising exponentially, the decades-long pattern of young adults leaving for greener pastures finally looks to be reversing.
The fundamentals are in place. But attitudes are another matter. If the SaskParty fails to offer a well-defined and clearly articulated contrast to the current government, they’ll be well on their way to branding their party as a watered-down version of the status quo.
And in economic good times, everyone knows the best place to go for the status quo.
Catherine McMillan writes at Small Dead Animals.