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politics

Be More Different

The NDP needs to give voters a real alternative

by John F. Conway

A reporter covering Tory Prime Minister Kim Campbell's 1993 election campaign likened it to watching a dog die slowly. Campbell replaced Brian Mulroney after his public support collapsed and she was punished for his sins, winning only two seats and 16 per cent of the vote.

Saskatchewan's 2011 election recalls that image to mind - the whole campaign is like watching a dog die. There is no public engagement, little interest and even less hope that anything could change very much as a result of casting a ballot.

The choice between Brad Wall's Saskatchewan Party and Dwain Lingenfelter's New Democrats is clear, but the differences are so marginal that it is hard to believe that anything much would really change if Lingenfelter replaced Wall. Lingenfelter knows he's losing and is determined to shore up the NDP's core vote. Hence he has run a careful, low-key campaign, focusing on practical economic and social issues that might resonate broadly with the public. Issues like rent control and affordable housing, improved health care, a children's dental plan, more day care spaces and more generous subsidies, a tuition freeze and so on are all modest programs, but depend on getting a bigger share of the province's resource wealth to finance such measures for the public good. This, on the face of it, should win broad support.

Lingenfelter has also promised to undo the worst of Wall's anti-union laws, which should shore up union support. And his vow to talk about sharing resource revenues with First Nations should shore up the NDP's traditionally strong support among the aboriginal community.

But in the absence of an engaging, polarizing campaign, will it succeed in getting the vote out in large numbers?

Probably not.

Lingenfelter's problem is he carries too much baggage from the past to be credible as a born-again moderate social democrat. He was Roy Romanow's deputy premier, who joined Finance Minister Janice MacKinnon in the U-turn away from social democracy to neoliberalism in the 1990s. He was a key member of the inner cabinet cabal which decided that the Romanow government's biggest adversaries were trade unionists, environmentalists, committed party activists and the general left - and they beat up on their core constituencies as they implemented neoliberal cuts to social, health and education programs; reduced taxes on business, resource companies and the wealthy; and completed Devine's privatization of key public assets.

This past has come back to haunt Lingenfelter in Saskatchewan Party attack ads and Wall's delight in quoting his former cabinet colleague, Janice MacKinnon, chastising Lingenfelter for his misguided economic policies and big-spending ways.

Given all this, can the public really believe Lingenfelter would do any of the progressive things he's promising? Back in 1991, Romanow and Lingenfelter promised to reverse the neoliberal agenda and return to basic social democracy, only to break that promise in spades. And did Lingenfelter stay to fight the good fight when Romanow's government fell to humiliating near-defeat in 1999? No, off he went to become an Alberta oil executive.

Wall knows he's winning, and winning big. So he too is running a careful campaign, emphasizing fiscal responsibility and economic prudence. He is somewhat cynically running against his former boss, Grant Devine, when he proclaims Saskatchewan can't go back to the dark days of disaster and debt of the 1980s, and accuses Lingenfelter of proposing measures that would do just that. Wall has also increased spending on social, health and education programs enough to make the core right-wing of his own party, and key members of the business lobby, uneasy. Brad Wall, to them, seems a little too NDP-like in his approach to governing. But Wall saves himself by bashing unions and pushing the race hot-button by carrying on hyperbolic rants about the NDP's promise to talk resource revenue sharing with First Nations.

One thing Brad Wall does not want is a heavily polarized, ideological campaign that goes after his right-wing record and tries to expose his right-wing views (does he have a hidden agenda to be trotted out upon victory?).

The sad thing is that Lingenfelter - or any NDP leader facing Wall - needs to confront Wall and polarize the campaign around clear ideological lines with a clear and moving vision of what Saskatchewan could be. But the problem is that there are not many ideological differences between Wall and Lingenfelter on the big, important questions. Lingenfelter wants an extra nickel on the dollar from potash - literally raising it from a nickel to a dime. For the first time Saskatchewan's debate on resources revenue sharing has become a matter of nickel and dime politics. What Lingenfelter should be demanding is 50 cents on the dollar, and an aggressive program of developing a public ownership presence in all of Saskatchewan's resources. Then the sparks would fly.

It's no accident that the resource wealth issue got big play in the leaders' debate - it resonates deeply with the public and always has. The public knows in their heart of hearts that we are taking a bath on our share of Saskatchewan's resource wealth.

There is another much more practical reason for the NDP to provoke a polarized, confrontational campaign. This has been a two-party race, and that spells trouble for the NDP. The NDP only won over 50 per cent of the vote in four elections: 1944, 1952, 1971 and 1991. All other victories resulted from divisions in the free enterprise, anti-NDP vote. The Liberals, who won 20 per cent in 1999, 14 per cent in 2003 and nine per cent in 2007, are effectively out of the running. This poses a tactical problem for the NDP - where will those 42,000 Liberal votes from 2007 go? The NDP knows the Green Party will siphon off a few thousand votes of those who would otherwise tend to vote NDP (over 9,000 in 2007). But where will the Liberal vote go? Will it stay at home, or go with the smiling Wall?

The fact is that the only way to win the votes of Liberals worried about the Saskatchewan Party is to confront and polarize. Given this campaign, most of the Liberal vote willing to go NDP in an ideologically polarized campaign will probably stay home.

This is just another reason why Wall is so confident of a smashing victory - a two-way fight and a quiet campaign to keep the moderate Liberals asleep.

But such an approach would be confrontational, polarizing and high-risk. The fact is that Lingenfelter, and today's NDP, are unwilling to play high-risk, principled politics.

Wall certainly does not want a campaign that attacks his pro-business, right-wing ways; exposes his piecemeal dismantling of the Crowns; accuses him of having a long-term, right-wing agenda including a relentless attack on the Crowns. He wants to slip quietly and easily into an overwhelming mandate, a mandate with a large number of Saskatchewan Party MLAs and a tiny, leaderless NDP Opposition.

Then we shall see who the real Brad Wall is. Does he really just want to be premier, or is he a Harperite right-wing ideologue eager to reconstruct Saskatchewan?

At this point, Wall appears to be a guy who just wants to be premier forever. But maybe not. And we can never forget who is behind him - a political coalition of far-right Reformers, hard Tories, right-of-centre Liberals and the business lobby. Some among these elements are already quietly critical of Wall for failing to deliver the right-wing goods. They might demand that Wall pony up if he wants to stay on as premier.

Predictions: 1) a record low turnout at the polls; 2) a sweep by the Saskatchewan Party; 3) three to six NDP MLAs as Official Opposition.

Let's hope I'm dead wrong.