Lessons From The Sesh

Controversies, scandals and polarization: a look at the fall Legislative session

Feature | by Gregory Beatty

Saskatchewan MLAs wrap up the fall session on Dec. 6. To recap what went on, and look ahead to 2019, we spoke with Saskatchewan director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Simon Enoch and University of Saskatchewan political scientist Charles Smith.

Both agreed that rural issues dominated the government’s agenda.

“It’s pretty clear that the Saskatchewan Party, since they elected Scott Moe as leader, are trying to consolidate their rural base, and will do what it takes to make that base vote for them in the next election,” says Smith. “When you look at the by-elections the party has won and lost in the last 18 months, it’s been losing steadily in Regina and Saskatoon, and winning handily in rural Saskatchewan.”

Together, Regina and Saskatoon have 26 MLAs in the 61-seat legislature. Crunch the numbers, and come the next election on Oct. 26, 2020, the Sask. Party could literally lose every big-city seat and still win a majority with its current stranglehold on rural Saskatchewan.

“It’s not a total urban/rural split,” Smith cautions. “There are still wealthy suburban ridings where Sask. Party MLAs are obviously going to be competitive. Those ridings tend to favour conservative messaging around tax cuts. But you’re seeing a doubling down on the rural vote, and with the electoral math that makes sense.”

While that strategy might benefit the Sask. Party short-term, it won’t serve Saskatchewan well in the long run, says Enoch. Saskatchewan cities, in particular, are being short-changed.

“Just like the rest of Canada we’re becoming increasingly urbanized,” he says. “Recent immigrants tend to concentrate there, and we have a significant urban infrastructure deficit that needs to be addressed by both federal and provincial governments. To have a government that seems exclusively focused on rural issues should raise a lot of red flags for people who want to see urban renewal.”

Compounding the governance problem is the Sask. Party’s hands-off approach to rural municipalities. Due to rural depopulation, perhaps two-thirds of the 296 RMs have fewer than 500 residents, and in recent years there have been a lot of scandals: fiscal mismanagement, administrative incompetence, conflict of interest, workplace bullying and not respecting privacy and freedom of information laws have been problems.

“I really think it needs to be looked at and perhaps reformed,” says Enoch. “The best thing would be to strike an independent, non-partisan inquiry to determine the best model that makes sure rural people feel they are getting the governance they want, but at the same time affords a more streamlined system that can address the challenges that have arisen lately.”

CRIME & CARBON

Rural crime and trespass legislation were two Sask. Party priorities this session. Both were driven by  rural residents worried about break-ins, equipment theft and property damage. To address those concerns, the government invested $5.9 million in a protection and response team to boost police resources, and arm highway patrol and conservation officers. It’s also proposed tighter rules around land access.

“I don’t want to be entirely unsympathetic,” says Enoch. “It’s easy for me as an urban person to call the police if the need arises, and they can be there in five or ten minutes. But it seems to me there could’ve been more constructive engagement by the government, particularly with First Nations, about ways to address this without almost, it seems, encouraging vigilantism.”

Smith shares that sentiment.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of dog-whistle politics involved. It creates a very concerning narrative around who is considered valuable by the government and who is not,” he says.

“If there’s a failure of the government this term it’s in how Indigenous peoples have not been consulted,” Smith adds. “A real path toward reconciliation continues to be a mystery. The government’s taken forever to deal with the 60s Scoop apology. Instead, it’s doubling down on restricting land access where the Federation of Saskatchewan Indigenous Nations has expressed clear concerns about the impact on treaty rights.”

A third rural-friendly Sask. Party priority is its war on Ottawa’s plan to impose a price on carbon pollution to help Canada meet its international commitment to combat climate change.

“It seems like with Premier Moe it’s all carbon tax all the time,” says Enoch. “I don’t think the federal government has done a good job of explaining why it’s needed and how it works. So there’s a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation out there, and the province hasn’t helped clarify that. If anything, they’ve stoked a lot of the misinformation.”

Pipelines are a fourth fixation, says Smith.

“Essentially, that’s all you get from the government on economic development. It’s not just concerning, it’s actually embarrassing. It suggests we have no capacity other than to take oil out of the ground and sell it. So there are all these missed opportunities around alternative energy sources.”

Instead, under its Prairie Resilience strategy, the government is focused on mitigating the effects of climate change.

“It’s shocking to me that the government can talk about how unprepared we are for flooding and forest fires,” says Smith. “Well, that’s exactly what climate change is bringing. So we have to deal with the after-effects of climate change but not address it proactively? I don’t understand that kind of backward thinking.”

The ultimate irony, of course, is that from a conservative economic perspective, a carbon price is smart policy — or, it should be.

“A carbon price allows the magic of the market to work, but here the government has abandoned any sort of market principles and has actually gone back to command and control where they’re putting regulations on specific industries and other things that will be much more heavy-handed than a market mechanism,” says Enoch. “So it’s very curious.”

POLARIZED PROVINCE

With leader Ryan Meili getting legislative experience in the spring session, and an expanded bench due to recent by-election wins in Regina and Saskatoon, both Smith and Enoch felt the NDP opposition performed well this fall.

From the GTH land scandal (where the Sask. Party is sheltering behind a RCMP finding that no criminal activity occurred) to cost overruns and operational deficiencies in the east Regina bypass, growing controversy over commercial development in Wascana Centre in Regina, a blasé attitude toward sponsored travel by government officials and more, the government was vulnerable to criticism.

“I think Mr. Meili talking about how setting the bar at ‘we weren’t criminally responsible’ seems pretty low really resonated for the NDP,” says Smith. “Issues like the GTH will continue to hamper the government, as so many questions remain, and so much was done in secret. It really speaks to how this government has done many of its big projects with cost overruns and subsidizing private companies. It’s just one bad news story after another.”

Enoch says the government is content to defer to private partners in P3 projects when problems emerge.

“P3 projects can be criticized on different grounds, but you can’t hive off pieces of essential infrastructure and say ‘Well, those aren’t our purview anymore.’ No, all public infrastructure is the responsibility of government. And if a private contractor is not living up to its end of a contract, that should be a big concern.”

Despite some solid criticism this session, the NDP is still a long-shot to win the next election, says Smith.

“Since Meili took over, they’ve won three by-elections, so that’s something they can hang their hat on. But they’ve also lost by-elections in rural areas. That’s something they have to be concerned about, because you can’t win government just by winning the big cities.”

Still, he does think the NDP is on the rebound.

“I think their bench has grown and matured,” says Smith. “They have some really good MLAs, they’re starting to see competitive nominations in some ridings. That suggests people are excited about the party again in a way they weren’t in the past.”

“They are trying to put forward a larger vision,” Enoch agrees. “That takes time. And we have seen elements of it in regards to their clean energy initiatives. I think the campaign for a $15 minimum wage has a lot of potential too. So we are starting to see pieces of that vision. Then it will be the job of Mr. Meili to sell that to the public.”

We’re still a long way from the election, of course, and with all the turmoil that’s playing out at the national and international level, not to mention festering provincial issues such as child poverty, the opioid crisis and stalled reconciliation with First Nations, it’s impossible to know what the future holds.

But polarization could grow in Saskatchewan, Smith suspects.

“You can imagine a situation similar to the end of the Devine years, where you have overwhelming support in Regina and Saskatoon going to the NDP, Prince Albert, maybe a seat in Moose Jaw, and still not being able to govern. If that were to happen, it would reflect the fact we are a rural/urban province that is polarized on that reality. And neither party, right now, has a solution to bridge that gap.”

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