If the definition of insanity, to quote a statement popularly misattributed to Einstein, is doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results, the leadership of the provincial and federal NDP (with the possible exception of Nova Scotia) is in dire straits. The party suffered its latest humiliating defeat on April 4 in the Saskatchewan provincial election, which returned Premier Brad Wall to power with a third majority government for the Saskatchewan Party. Mirroring similar debacles for the NDP across Canada, the party’s latest loss ironically comes at a time when voters are increasingly open to socialist ideas. But in the absence of a bold socialist alternative, the status quo tends to prevail, as illustrated by Wall’s resounding victory.
The results were stark, with the Saskatchewan Party winning 51 constituencies in the provincial legislature while the NDP pulled in 10. The gain of one seat for the NDP after its dismal showing in the 2011 election, when it lost more than half its seats under then-leader Dwain Lingenfelter, was small comfort for Saskatchewan NDP Leader Cam Broten, who lost his own seat in Saskatoon Westview. Broten’s fate remains uncertain pending a meeting by the party’s provincial council, which is set to take place in Saskatoon on April 23. While the 2016 election saw a 24-per cent increase in registered voters compared to 2011, voter turnout itself declined from 66.7 per cent in 2011 to less than 57 per cent this year.
The apparent endorsement of the status quo by the Saskatchewan electorate resulted from both objective and subjective factors. Compared to most provinces, Saskatchewan remains in a more favourable economic position, even as it has begun to suffer the effects of a downturn due to declining prices for natural resources such as oil and potash. Although the publisher of Sask Trends Monitor has described a “skyrocketing” unemployment rate, which according to Statistics Canada rose to 5.6 per cent in January from 4.5 per cent last year, the level of unemployment remains the lowest for any province in Canada.
While the drop in resource prices has decreased the amount of money in government coffers, Saskatchewan’s economy is more diversified than its western neighbour Alberta and was hit less hard by the plunge in oil prices. Saskatchewan’s projected $262-million deficit, though significant, appears minor compared to the whopping $6.3-billion deficit in oil-dependent Alberta, which may rise to $10 billion in the coming fiscal year.
Despite these warning signs of tougher times ahead, Saskatchewan’s economic situation relative to other provinces was enough for Wall to campaign on the slogan “Keep Saskatchewan Strong” and to make the economy his main focus. Though the economic success of previous years was based not on Saskatchewan Party policies, but on high natural resource prices, Wall was as always more than happy to take credit for the boom.
Even so, the Saskatchewan Party’s campaign was undeniably effective from a policy standpoint. The party platform included $105 million in new spending over the next four years—though much of these promises had already been built into the government’s budget, such as its promise to cut $7.5 million from health-care administration and invest that money in hiring nurses and long-term care aides. It also pledged to invest in infrastructure by spending $70 million on highway repairs. While denying charges made by the NDP that his party intended to privatize Crown corporations, Wall made privatizing provincial liquor stores a major part of his campaign.
With the Saskatchewan Party painting a picture of relative economic success and promising to invest in health care and education, the NDP needed to advocate strong socialist policies to provide a convincing alternative to Wall’s government. But true to form, its platform consisted of various reforms and investments in health care and infrastructure that, while more generous than those of the Saskatchewan Party, failed to adequately distinguish themselves from the party in power.
In post-secondary education, for example, the Saskatchewan Party pledged to increase the Saskatchewan Advantage Scholarship for students from $500 to $750, with the highly significant caveat that the province’s finances must strengthen first. In other words, the government ensured it had a convenient way to renege on this promise after the election. By contrast, the NDP pledged to increase the Saskatchewan Advantage Scholarship from $500 to $1,000, while eliminating interest on student loans and converting existing student loans to grants. Improvements over the Sask Party’s proposal, to be sure—yet how much more enthusiasm would the NDP have created had it pledged to use the province’s resource wealth to fund free post-secondary education for all?
Instead of advocating for socialist policies, the NDP chose to tack right by making the elimination of “government waste” a major part of its campaign. Among other efforts to curb spending, the party argued that it could save $244 million over four years by slashing the number of highly paid consultants working on government contracts, such as the promotion offices for kaizen (a Japanese management strategy aimed at standardizing activities and processes) in provincial health regions, as well as the John Black Lean program. While pledging to use the savings to hire additional nurses, long-term care staff members and other health workers, the NDP’s proposal again did not appear sufficiently different from the Saskatchewan Party platform to sway voters.
Lingering distrust of the NDP, dating back to the Blairite policies of the Roy Romanow government in the 1990s, may have also played a role in the party’s defeat in the latest election. By adeptly playing on the betrayals of previous NDP governments to undercut the opposition party, the charismatic Wall has shown himself to be one of the most slickly effective politicians in Canada in defending the interests of the capitalist class.
Voters have long memories. The tax increases and service cuts pushed through by the Romanow government to balance the budget following the Progressive Conservative government of Premier Grant Devine, are still remembered as a time of relative hardship. As with all reformist parties, the Saskatchewan NDP betrayed its own supporters and destroyed its own legitimacy through its refusal to break with capitalism, and party leaders continue to pay the price today.
Now that the good times of high resource prices are coming to an end, however, the Wall government may be in a for a rougher tenure than it has grown accustomed to. The Premier has confirmed that his government will be running a deficit for the next two years, pledging that if re-elected he would balance the budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year. If resource prices remain low, Wall’s only choice for achieving this goal will be to implement austerity measures, which will only compound growing unemployment. The future for workers and farmers in Saskatchewan suddenly appears far bleaker than it has in years.
Like its federal and provincial counterparts who have suffered similarly devastating losses, the Saskatchewan NDP now finds itself resigned to another prolonged period of soul-searching in the electoral wilderness. Its only hope for survival lies in becoming a real voice of opposition for the working people of Saskatchewan, who will suffer most in the coming years as the province’s economic situation grows ever more precarious. To do so, the NDP must stand for socialist policies that will provide an alternative to the Wall government and to the capitalist system that makes recurring economic crises inevitable. Reflecting the growing popularity of figures like Jeremy Corbyn in Britain and Bernie Sanders in the USA, the recent victory of “anti-capitalist Christian socialist” Gary Burrill as leader of the Nova Scotia NDP points the way forward. Yet it is only by breaking with capitalism itself that we can we truly begin to create a future of lasting prosperity for all.