Into The Right
If the Sask Party gets the huge majority polls suggest, will it show restraint or go on a neoliberal rampage?
by Gregory Beatty
As Halloween loomed, the poll Forum Research released on Oct. 28 had an air of trick-or-treat about it. With the Saskatchewan Party enjoying a 66 to 30 per cent lead over the NDP, there's no doubt about who got the treat and who will likely get the trick on Nov. 7.
Or is there?
Yes, the NDP are going to be thumped. Then they'll start the long rebuilding process they should have started in 2007. And what of the Sask. Party? With an increased majority in the Legislature, will it continue to follow a relatively moderate political course (except in a few areas I'll get to later) or, emboldened by its stranglehold on power, will it lurch to the right? If it's the latter, it's the province that could end up being tricked.
That's Simon Enoch's concern. He's head of the Saskatchewan branch of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. This summer, Enoch published a paper comparing the first-term performance of the Brad Wall government with the Grant Devine Tories in the '80s and Ross Thatcher-led Liberals in the mid-'60s.
One difference he noted, even in comparison to the Saskies under former leader Elwin Hermanson, is that "the party is quite savvy at recognizing that a lot of Saskatchewan people have social democratic inclinations.
"If they want to become the natural governing party, which is obviously their goal, they can't just be a Mike Harris/Ralph Klein screw-the-poor party," says Enoch. "They're going to have to appeal to moderate liberal/social democrats, particularly in urban centres."
To woo that vote, Wall's spent a lot of time this election campaigning in Saskatchewan cities. The party's also worked hard, says Enoch, to show voters they're not the "scary mean Tories" that the NDP's tried to portray them as.
That means no talk of selling Crown Corporations or privatizing important public services.
Here's how Wall put it in a presser announcing the party's platform: "A Saskatchewan Party government will ensure our economy continues to grow and that all Saskatchewan people share in the benefits of a strong and growing province."
Who can argue with that, right?
Well, organized labour, for one. And environmentalists probably won't be too thrilled with the government's Big Oil agenda. And Crown Corp supporters and fans of public services might have reason to worry too.
Despite efforts by the Sask. Party to distance itself from its (generally reviled) conservative predecessors, Enoch notes in his paper, direct links exist. Wall himself worked as a junior staffer in the Devine administration. The Saskies also embrace the same "Tommy the Commie" rhetoric that blames virtually every ill Saskatchewan has ever suffered on the CCF/NDP.
"I really wish people here were more aware of our history," says Enoch. "The social democratic movement built Saskatchewan. There's a reason why private capital wouldn't come here to make investments in phones and energy. It just wasn't profitable, so the CCF/NDP had to make those investments with public money."
While the Sask. Party hasn't talked openly about privatizing Crowns, they did institute a Saskatchewan First policy that required them to divest out of province assets - profitable or not.
It's also stripped Crowns of their surpluses to balance the budget, making it impossible for them to accumulate reserves for future capital upgrades.
Emboldened by their electoral success, and with an unprecedented third term possibly looming on the horizon in 2015, Enoch wonders what will happen if the party's core constituency starts demanding more "red meat."
"I think more and more what you'll see is, 'Well, you know, maybe we needed Crown Corporations in the past. But we can turn it over to the private sector now.'"
Outside of what Enoch describes as an "assault" on organized labour [see sidebar], most of the neoliberal initiatives the Sask. Party's taken thus far have been under the radar. Neoliberal, by the way, is political jargon for a movement that began with the Thatcher-Reagan revolution in the early '80s that championed privatization, liberalization (of trade and investment), a monetarist economic policy geared to controlling government spending and promoting private profit, deregulation of labour markets and marketization, where everything in society - like naming rights to public facilities - is commodified.
The movement has pretty much run its course in the U.S. and Europe. Here, though, it's just picking up steam.
"It's almost like we're reattempting this neoliberal experiment that's already failed," says Enoch. "It might be that with the economy booming, these policies seem sustainable. But as soon as commodity prices go into a downturn, how will we manage?"