Well, election day has come and gone in Saskatchewan. All of you should be aware of the numbers, and the fact that the NDP has been reduced to historical lows, while the Saskatchewan Party has risen to new heights in terms of their own electoral success.
Going into the campaign, the NDP knew we were entering into an uphill battle. Wall's popularity, however unfounded it may be, was high. The same could not be said for Dwain Lingenfelter, who had suffered attacks against himself from day one at the hands of the SK Party. And now, as a new day rises after election day, the Sask NDP finds itself without a leader and with a reduced caucus. Before we talk about what that means for the party, and what the future holds, we should talk a bit about how we reached this point in the first place.
Now, I've decried the historical argument before on this blog; yet many news casters were quick to point it out. Saskatchewan has never been a province to toss out a government after only one term. Personally, I don't think historical precedent had much to do with the result of this election. Yes, it furthers that idea, but I don't know how much water it actually holds.
With that hogwash out of the way, we can focus on some of the more reasonable ideas as to why the NDP was unable to gain traction during this campaign.
1.) The personal popularity factor: As mentioned above, Brad Wall has been riding on levels of popularity not seen for other politicians throughout the nation. While I personally disagree with the reasons for his popularity, no one can argue that like it or not he is a well liked man. The same could not be said for Dwain Lingenfelter; for both founded and unfounded reasons.
Like any of us, Lingenfelter had a history and a record in government that he had to defend. The SK Party was quick to point out problems and missteps in Lingenfelter's record, though often left out the reasons why those decisions were made, and it was the first nail in the coffin of Lingenfelter's leadership. Lingenfelter did come off as an old school politician, and to a degree arrogant and brash; but he fought against this image in the campaign by promoting positive change.
The Lingefelter of old was very much as the SK Party portrayed him, but the one we saw in the campaign was indeed a different and changed man.
2.) The party popularity factor: For reasons I cannot fathom, the SK Party also shares in some levels of popularity. Perhaps it is the afterglow of having Brad Wall leading them, but the party itself has a degree of popularity that the NDP wasn't able to match during this campaign. Now, I could cite all the reasons why the SK Party doesn't deserve the laurels that it has been resting on; but we're only going to focus on the major one and that rests with the economy.
During 2005 - 2006, Saskatchewan became a have province and the boom of Saskatchewan began. It was a slow start, given that we'd spent 16 years working off debt and making difficult choices to right our economic house. But the boom began under the NDP, and we need to acknowledge that.
In four years, the only major success of the SK Party is that it hasn't completely destroyed the economy...yet. I am trying to focus on the election, so I don't want to get into topics about how our Crowns are in jeopardy, how local contractors are going to be losing bids left and right to those from Alberta and British Columbia, and how we will run deficits that are covered up by redirecting funds from other parts of the government's purview.
But for the most part, Saskatchewan's economy was touted as being in good shape. When the rest of the world continues to talk uncertainty, the SK Party was able to successfully suggest that our economy was in good shape. Granted, it depends on who you ask. We still have a high number of unemployed people in the province. We still have a record number of food bank usage. We still have people struggling to pay for the rising cost of rental units and permanent housing.
So, whether or not the economy is in good shape is fairly debatable. But, the SK Party was able to sell the idea that it was and that they were the ones responsible for the economy being in good shape. As such, this enhanced their own popularity in a fairly meaningful way.
3.) Collapse of the Liberal Vote: Saskatchewan has become more or less a two-party province, thanks to the collapse of the Liberal vote. And much like in the last federal election, small-C Liberals found themselves drawn to the nearest conservative leaning party.
Provincial Liberals flocked to the SK Party in this election, and it was their involvement that pushed the NDP to the edge and the SK Party over the top in this election; much like those Liberals in Ontario who pushed Harper's conservatives into a majority government.
However, that's only a fraction of the story. Given that there are going to be Liberals who couldn't 'hold their nose' and vote for one of the parties that was fielding candidates in their constituency. Now, I haven't seen any information on voter turnout as of yet. But, I'm going to guess that we were probably on the lower end. I could be wrong, but I imagine that a lot of those lost Liberal votes from 2007 (that didn't turn out to be SK Party supporters) include those who simply did not go out and vote.
4.) Uncertainty: Let's face it, all of the provinces and territories that have had elections have shown one thing that is the current trend in Canadian politics: Despite disliking the government in office, voters are unwilling to toss them from power when there is a lot riding on it.
Look at Ontario. No one expected McGuinty's Liberals to form another government, let alone a minority one. Doomsayers also suggested that the Manitoba NDP were going to be turfed from power as well. In both cases, the pollsters were proven wrong and both governments were kept in power, despite the suggestion that people were ready for change in the province.
As such, while one can toss out historical precedence, there's no denying the current trend of supporting the incumbent during uncertain times. That was one of the things the NDP was fighting against during the campaign, in addition to the popularity of Brad Wall and his party. In uncertain times, people are unwilling to change the route and would rather stay the course.
5.) Dwain Lingenfelter: I've talked a bit about personality, but now I need to be a little bit harsher. I have to admit, I didn't support Lingenfelter during the leadership race. I was skeptical about electing an 'old guard' leader, especially given the contrast it would have against Brad Wall. Despite my resistance, Lingenfelter won me over after the first time I saw him address a room full of NDP members.
Sadly, that Lingenfelter was absent from the election campaign. Despite a better debate performance than Wall, Lingenfelter never really seemed to capture the imagination or inspire those outside of the NDP already. Yes, he was able to win over members who were uncertain about his leadership. But he was not able to win over those who did not have the chance to meet him and get to know him.
Rather, he was defined to the public by the attack ads that were taken out against him by the SK Party. The public never got the chance to actually see Lingenfelter as he was; but only as the boogeyman the SK Party wanted people to see.
And yes, he had a history and some things he had to answer for from his past. I've written about that before on this blog, and I think we don't need to cover the same old ground again. Lingenfelter was never fully able to address the concerns the SK Party levelled against him, and that (in the court of public opinion) made all the accusations true.
There is an idea in politics that you can't address the claims of an attack ad, because when you do you let your opponent's message define the campaign. But in Lingenfelter's case, one can't help but wonder how things would have been different if he had addressed the charges against him in those ads. Yes, it would have involved going after Wall and his party's record (contrary to the campaign of positive change) but it may have also improved public opinion of Mr. Lingenfelter.
6.) Positive Campaigning: I've said it before, I don't like attack ads. I think it is the cheapest, basest form of politiking and any politician worth their salt should never have to run an attack ad to win a campaign. That said though, there is a difference between negative campaigning and focusing on a record.
The SK Party campaigned on their record and their attacks on Lingenfelter. The NDP meanwhile let pretty much everything slide and focused solely on their platform. If electors in a democratic society didn't live the age of the soundbyte, then perhaps the NDP approach would have produced a better result. But, since we do live in the information age; and have a mentality of wanting to cram complex subjects down into 3 sentences or less, this was an approach that couldn't work on its own.
I'm not saying attack ads should have been taken out against Wall. But I am saying ads should have been taken out about the SK Party record. Allow me to illustrate:
-SK Party literature loved to mention that Saskatchewan was a have province now. Yet, the NDP never publicly reminded voters that it was the Calvert Government who made Saskatchewan a have province.
-SK Party literature loved to mention that more people were working in Saskatchewan, and not in part time jobs but in full time jobs. Yet, the NDP didn't condemn the SK Party when reports came out that proved this wasn't true. In October, Saskatchewan lost thousands of full-time jobs and replaced only a handful of those losses with lower paying part time jobs.
-SK Party literature loved to talk about paying down the debt by 40%. Yet the NDP never mentioned how the debt was just shifted to the Crown Corporations; or how the surpluses the SK Party were running were generated not by prudent financial management but by taking money from the Crowns and the 'rainy day fund' to cover budgetary shortfalls.
-SK Party literature loved to talk about how more young people are staying in this province. Yet the NDP never addressed the key reason why younger people are staying in Saskatchewan. (I'm a young man myself, so allow me to explain) After the tuition freeze ended in Saskatchewan, students were paying more for schooling. Many of those students are now unable to find work or careers in their chosen fields, while many more are unable to find any work at all.
It's not that the SK Party is making things better for young people to stay, it's that their making it worse and impossible for young people to leave. I'm in a fair amount of debt after 4 years of school; as is any other student. Compound that with the inability to get a job which can cover living expenses, debt payments, and other expenses and you have a generation who have stagnated and are unable to leave the province if they wanted to.
Sure, I could pack up and move to Manitoba or Ontario and find a job with a political studies degree there easily...BUT, like many other students, I simply don't have the financial means to do so. I don't have the down payment on a house. I don't have the financial ability to pay rent in a new place. Young people are staying in Saskatchewan, but only because they can't afford to leave.
(On a side note, I happen to like it here in Saskatchewan. So even if I was in a different financial situation, I doubt I'd want to leave.)
The SK Party campaigned on their record, but it was not a complete picture. But the NDP was too focused on positive campaigning that even mentioning that the record was flawed was considered 'negative' and not worth mentioning during a campaign. The problem, of course, is that a record is always open to scrutiny. There is a difference between calling a government's record into question and personally attacking another leader.
Those are some of the major reasons that brought about the colossal NDP defeat that we saw the other night. The party will lick it wounds over these next four years, and eventually will be ready to fight again and hopefully win.
Which brings me to the part of the post where we will focus on the future of the NDP in Saskatchewan. I'm not a fortune teller, but I'll tell you what I think. With regards to the leadership race, I think we're not going to see any outsiders. By which I mean, I don't think we're going to see any of the 9 step aside for a by-election to be held for a new leader. Furthermore, a party is not going to elect a leader and have them sit outside the legislature for two - three years.
As such, one of the current 9 MLAs is likely going to step into the leadership position. The question is a matter of who is going to step forward and who is ultimately going to win. There are 3 big names that I think most people would agree on: Danielle Chartier, Trent Wotherspoon, and Cam Broten. Of the current caucus, those three stand out as the most likely leadership contenders.
That isn't to say that any of the others are unsuited for the job; rather, it is just an assessment of who seems most likely (in my mind) to pursue the leadership. Of course, there's always going to be a chance of outsiders running anyways. Former second-place leadership contender Ryan Meili could always make another go of it, but as mentioned above, it seems unlikely that the anyone would step aside for a by-election or that the party/caucus would support someone who isn't currently in the legislature.
Of course, I could be wrong, I am not a psychic.
Of the three mentioned, it's possible that one may end serving an interim leader instead of making a full leadership bid. Or it's possible that one of the other six will serve in this post to allow these three candidates to make a full run at leading the party into the future.
Only time will tell whether or not any, or all, of them get involved in a leadership race. What I do know is this: Many will say that last night was the night that the NDP were destroyed in Saskatchewan. Many will say that we must abandon our ideals and our consciences and embrace populism politics in order to ever have a chance of forming government.
It is true that our party is broken and beaten at the moment; but wounds heal and bones set over time. With time, we shall recover from this and we shall recover in a way that only makes us stronger. From destruction can come two things: We can either accept the defeat and convince ourselves that nothing can be done. Or, we can stand up, brush ourselves off, and acknowledge that from destruction comes the chance for creation.
And it is this new incarnation of our party that will become a strong voice for the people of Saskatchewan. Ours is a party that seeks to include, not exclude. To unite, not divide. And by doing this, we shall rise from this defeat with the knowledge that ours is a party that seeks to do the right thing. We may not always choose the most popular course of action, but we will choose to do what is right.
And by embracing our principles, and championing our causes, we shall regroup and we shall rebuild. And most importantly, in four years time, we shall be ready.