The NDP’s new leader is officially opposed to unaccountable governments
by Gregory Beatty
After a six-month race, Saskatoon MLA Cam Broten won a narrow 44-vote victory over Ryan Meili at the March 8-10 NDP leadership convention in Saskatoon. At 33, Broten, who is married and has two pre-school children, became the youngest leader in party history. He went right back to work, giving his first speech as Opposition leader in the Legislature on Monday. A few days later Prairie Dog spoke with him at his office where he was still settling in following the departure of interim leader John Nilson.
Some media reports suggested there was a real generational shift with this leadership campaign and convention. Was that your perception?
It was very exciting because we had so many young people involved both in leadership roles and at the grassroots level. That’s a very good sign for the party, especially as we come together and unite. At the convention there was stroller parking in the hallways, which was really positive.
After the convention, former MLA Pat Atkinson advised in a Star-Phoenix op-ed that you reach out to the other candidates. Is this something you plan to do?
The race was long — more of a marathon than a sprint. It was competitive, as it ought to be. But it wasn’t mean-spirited. We all understood that we’re in the same family, and we want what’s best for the party and the province. By our nature, New Democrats like to work together. We also like to think long-term and dream big. As I said at the convention, whatever an individual may have done in the race, whether they wore a button, sold a membership, volunteered, I want them involved in a meaningful way. I want to modernize how we develop policy so we have a more democratic and deliberative approach. That will be one key way for people to be involved. In terms of roles, Trent Wotherspoon is deputy leader. He and I get along well, and he’s a fantastic worker. Also, we’ll be meeting with Ryan Meili in the near future to talk about roles that suit him best and what he would like to do.
The last while there’s been several indications of wheels on the Sask. Party government, if not actually falling off, then coming loose. What are some issues you feel the government is vulnerable on?
The key area we’ll be focusing on is for the Sask. Party to have increased accountability and transparency. That means admitting mistakes when they occur, like eliminating the Film Employment Tax Credit and Aboriginal Employment Development Program, reducing educational assistants in classrooms, mishandling the IPAC affair at the University of Regina. The Sask. Party needs to not be so stubborn, admit they made a mistake, and correct it. Reinstating some of these programs in the budget would be one way to do that.
A second key area is education, K to 12. We hear about large classroom sizes, reductions in educational assistants, the need for increased supports for English as a second language. This is another area where we’ll be shining a light and suggesting better approaches.
The third area we want to focus on is long-term care for our loved ones so that there are more and better options for our grandparents and moms and dads.
What about universities?
Yeah, that’s another issue. There are areas where we need to be doing so much better as a province, and the mood at both universities is quite depressed, whether you’re talking to faculty, staff or students. People don’t understand why we’re in this situation where we’re cutting programs and laying off sessional lecturers in huge numbers. It doesn’t make sense, but it comes down to decisions the Sask. Party has made.
There’s been this boom rhetoric for a number of years. If people weren’t already suspicious, we’re seeing concrete examples now that suggest our prosperity is pretty ephemeral.
The boom-and-bust cycle… Saskatchewan people want better than that. The question is how do we use the resources and dollars we have now to think long-term. I think we do that by making the proper investments in education and infrastructure. Those should be priorities. The glaring example of a misplaced priority was the government’s decision shortly after they were re-elected to add three more MLAs at a cost of millions. Nobody wanted that.
What are your thoughts about the labour law review that’s underway?
Bill 85 is so huge and its effects are so sweeping. To me, it only makes sense to do it in a thoughtful way that doesn’t create problems. We saw that with essential services legislation where it was ruled unconstitutional. Bill 85 doesn’t even fix that problem. You’d think they’d do that first. Throughout this entire process there’s been a lack of consultation. It [demonstrates] a desire to not actually listen to Saskatchewan people but just plow ahead with a pre-determined agenda.
What about the idea of a royalty review and creation of a heritage fund to shift some of the short-term benefits into long-term benefits for the province?
Saskatchewan people want their leadership to be thinking long-term and take the right steps to set up future generations for success. Look at what Norway did with its [$600 billion and growing] fund. It’s been very successful. I’ve said there needs to be a royalty review and I’m committed to that. My job as Opposition leader is to stand up for Saskatchewan’s interests, and we need to receive the best possible benefit from the resources we have.
Would we see rent control under an NDP government?
Our housing critic David Forbes brought up the issue of huge rent increases in Question Period this week. We believe in next-generation rent control that would increase the supply of units. That’s something the Sask. Party has really fallen short on.
How concerned are you about the party’s presence in rural Saskatchewan?
We need to focus on building strong rural communities because that’s what people want. And that’s what we’re good at as New Democrats, I think. On agricultural issues, we need to build up the family farm, not tear it down. I think right-wing parties these days take the rural vote for granted. We saw the elimination of shelterbelt programs, community pastures — these are treasured things for many rural people. They may have been instigated by the federal government, but they’ve been completely facilitated by the provincial government. Aside from being strong on that front, it’s about listening and reconnecting with rural Saskatchewan, doing it in a sincere way and coming up with ideas people like.
Federal NDP leader Thomas Mulcair spoke at the convention about helping rebuild the party in Saskatchewan. But on issues like the Keystone pipeline, the Sask. Party’s used him as a cudgel against you. What relationship do you see between the federal and provincial NDP?
Co-operation is the best approach so we can use our resources in a smart and effective way. But we also need to recognize the unique needs of Saskatchewan. And my job as leader of the Saskatchewan New Democrats is to do that — within a strong Canada, yes. But I love this province and want what’s best for it. On the issue of resource development and pipelines, we support it with a triple-bottom line analysis of environmental, economic and social benefits. If we don’t take the right steps on the environment, it hurts the economy. We need to recognize that climate change is real. In its throne speech last fall, the government didn’t even mention it. We need to use our Crown utilities in a leadership role and take real action when it comes to expanding into renewables and energy conservation.