Success may rest in closing rural-urban
After the 1999 provincial election, there was a stark and obvious fissure: when the dust settled, Saskatchewan's NDP held the biggest cities, but they were surrounded by a sea of rural Saskatchewan Party MLAs.
Eight years earlier, when the NDP swept into power, they carried a number of rural seats as people had decided it was time for change in government.
As Saskatchewanians move towards their Nov. 5 date with the voting booth, the realpolitik for both parties is to hold onto their bases and then try to eke out enough seats in enemy territory to form a government.
Going back in history for a moment might be a useful exercise.
The NDP appeared ready to snatch power back in 1986. Then-premier Grant Devine made a panicky phone call in the middle of the night to then-prime minister Brian Mulroney, a fellow Tory. He cajoled Mulroney into giving farmers a billion-dollar aid package. He won the election.
The mood for change in 1991
The mood for change in 1991 was palpable. Devine tried to forestall that change. One of the Progressive Conservative leader's last, desperate acts to hold onto his rural base was "Fair Share Saskatchewan" a plan to decentralize the civil service by dispersing about 100 different government agencies and departments to rural communities around the province. It didn't save his party, but in areas where his party did win, farmers said it was because the Tories were best for them.
When Roy Romanow took over as premier, he did so with 55 of 66 seats and 51 per cent of the popular vote. He vowed to govern for the entire province, says Glen McPherson, who was elected in the rural riding of Shaunavon as an NDPer then crossed the floor to the Liberals a few years later.
But the political reality that NDP support was now centred in the urban areas just as Devine realized his fate would be decided in the country did intrude into the policy-making process, McPherson says.
Howard Leeson is a University of Regina political scientist and has worked as a constitutional advisor for the NDP. Governments have two sides, policy-making and electoral, and it's often difficult to know how much the latter intrudes on the former, he says.
Inheriting an $842 million deficit and a $15.4 billion provincial debt, the NDP had some tough choices to make in the first part of its mandate.
One decision it made to was to convert 52 rural hospitals to "wellness centres" as part of a bid to control health-care costs. The rationale was that the small, rural hospitals were outmoded and weren't really designed to deliver services that would keep people healthy. The NDP also ended the costly Gross Revenue Insurance Program (GRIP) which was popular with farmers.
The deficit-cutting exercise took a modest toll on its popularity: in 1995, the NDP saw its popular vote share drop by five percentage points, although it won 42 of 58 seats. Those losses were primarily in rural areas and primarily to Liberals.
The party started having trouble in areas of historical rural strength. One of those is known as Red Square, a largely rural area with small cities and towns in it such as Yorkton, Canora and Kamsack. Leeson says it used to be an NDP stronghold, but not any more.
Losing rural voters
By 1999, the bottom fell out in rural Saskatchewan for the NDP, with its seat total dropping to 29 and its popular vote share to 37.6 per cent. The main change was a significant new challenger on the right one with rural roots. In 1997, the Saskatchewan Party formed. It is a coalition of former Tories, right-wing Liberals and Reform Party-Alliance supporters. It ultimately captured 26 seats in its first election, virtually all in rural areas or small urban ones, and actually captured the highest share of the popular vote. The NDP won only two seats that could be considered rural.
Besides hospital conversions, the NDP converted paved roads back to gravel in some areas. A tax re-assessment increased the property tax burden on farmland (note: the Saskatchewan Party has said it will cut education property taxes on farmland by 15 per cent if elected). It also triggered a fight with rural municipalities with a proposal to force amalgamations; a proposal from which it ultimately had to back away.
Even if the NDP had done nothing specific to anger rural areas, it would bear the brunt of general frustration over the economic straits much of the rural part of the province finds itself in.
Saskatchewans major cities have done reasonably well. Saskatoon had the fastest-increasing house prices in Canada during the first half of the 1990s, driven in part by growth in the biotechnology sector. Regina is the seat of government. The numbers tell the story; Saskatchewans urban areas grew by 34.3 per cent between 1966 and 2001. Rural areas dropped by 28.2 per cent in that period, according to the Canada West Foundation.
Rising machinery costs and historic commodity price deflation has kept the pressure on farms to get larger or perish. Farm economists say an average farm size should be between 3,000 and 5,000 acres in size to be economical. The latest Census of Agriculture statistics arent out yet, but the average farm size in 1996 was 1,152 acres. That indicates the restructuring which has seen the number of farms and farmers plunge over the decades likely hasnt finished yet.
On top of that, subsidies to producers in the European Union and the United States keep production for key crops artificially high. The grain-handling industry has restructured, moving away from the iconic "prairie sentinel" elevator to massive, highly efficient inland grain terminals. This increases costs for farmers because they have to haul grain farther. McPherson says even Shaunavon, a service centre in southwest Saskatchewan, no longer has a grain elevator. Then this past summer evidence of mad cow disease devastated beef producers.
Leeson said rural people understand there are some forces acting upon them that are beyond the control of any government, but his reading is they also think the NDP could have done more than it did.
"They [the NDP] don't want to be adventurous at all," says Neal Hardy, president of the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities, but also once a cabinet minister in the Devine government.
The lack of job opportunities is a real killer, he says. "We educate plenty of them, but from about 19 years to about 35 or 40 years [of age, people] just leave and we don't keep very many of them. We've just become an old province."
Asked why he thought the Saskatchewan Party had enjoyed success
in rural areas but not urban, Hardy says he thinks the party has
strong rural roots and didn't have good candidates in the urban
centres in 1999.
RELATED: Sask Party working for urban vote
There are differences in issues. Rural people worry about losing grain elevators while city people worry about growing inner-city poverty, he says, adding the Saskatchewan Party appears to be trying to address those issues in this campaign.
Leeson notes that when the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation started, it was an agrarian populist movement formed in the 1930s. But that was four generations ago.
As farms have gotten fewer in number and larger in size, farmers have become more free-enterprise in their outlook, he says.
There may well be social and cultural factors at play affecting the way urban and rural people vote. But no formal study has been done to examine it, Leeson says.
The NDP has tried to be seen as representative of rural interests on some issues and tried to avoid controversy on others. It has been a staunch, vocal opponent of the federal gun registry, for example, and stayed silent on gay marriage. But it hasn't had any help from the federal Liberals on some key issues. For example, when Romanow who is considered to have a good relationship with Prime Minister Jean Chretien went to Ottawa in the fall of 1999 to lobby for farm aid, he returned empty-handed. Compare that with the billion-dollar deal Mulroney and Devine stuck in 1986.
In general, however, the Saskatchewan Party has seemed to be more in step with rural Saskatchewan. It also doesn't have to bear the burden of having held power for the last 12 years while fate pushed pill after bitter pill down rural Saskatchewan's throat. And the province's electoral map is still weighted slightly towards rural areas.
Unless the Saskatchewan Party does something to alienate its
rural base by Nov. 5, its hope of taking power rests on whether
those urban voters who want change trust the party to deliver
it without hurting their interests.