'Grassroots' of the NDP helped Ryan Meili win leadership, says Sask. political scientist

Ryan Meili’s election means a moderate turn to the left for the Saskatchewan NDP, according to a Regina political scientist.

University of Regina political scientists react to Meili's win

Ryan Meili, the Saskatoon Meewasin MLA, was chosen as the new leader for the Saskatchewan NDP on Saturday. (Alex Soloducha/CBC)

Ryan Meili's election means a moderate turn to the left for the Saskatchewan NDP, according to a Regina political scientist.

The Saskatoon Meewasin MLA defeated Regina Rosemont MLA Trent Wotherspoon on Saturday with a healthy 1,100 vote margin of victory.

"Fifty-five per cent in a two person contest is a good solid win. This was, I think, a vote from the grassroots of the party," said Tom McIntosh, head of the political studies department at the University of Regina.

Meili, 42, pledged to only take donations from individuals and was able to raise more money than Wotherspoon. 

He was also able to exorcise some past political demons, having lost the leadership in both 2009 and again in 2013 when Cam Broten eked out a win by 44 votes.

The physician-turned-politician was branded in the last two leadership campaigns as further left on the political spectrum than his opponents. McIntosh said Meili's campaign policies were not that different from Wotherspoon's.

"Substantively this is not a huge, massive turn to the left. It's a modest turn to the left but I think you would have a modest turn to the left with Wotherspoon as well."

Meili's message

CBC's Christy Climenhaga interviews Ryan Meili. 5:51

University of Regina associate professor of political studies Jim Farney said that while both candidates shared many of the same policy ideas, Meili was able to attract more members because of what he represented.

"Energy level I think, and a real sense in the membership of the NDP that they wanted change, and he certainly represented that to the party membership," said Farney.

"His messaging around ill-health is really a political problem I think resonates with folks who want to see government do more generally. Wotherspoon is more the establishment of the party, in terms of his network and in terms of his style maybe a little bit too."

Regina Rosemont MLA Trent Wotherspoon was the first person to congratulate Meili and asked members to give him their full support. (Canadian Press)

Meili proposed a $15 minimum wage and removing corporate and union donations to parties as a first act of government, and universal pharmacare.

Farney said the party now has a clear direction heading into the 2020 election but, given the difference they need to make up to catch the Saskatchewan Party, he said 2024 may be more realistic.

"They can really plan now out to 2024 to rebuild organizationally, to rebuild their brand, to really listen. They haven't had that type of stability in a very long time."

Moe vs. Meili

Premier Scott Moe has been the minister of environment and advanced education and has been under the lights in question period, but never front and centre. Meili was elected in March 2017 and, while he worked as a critic, has only a few months of debate in the legislature under his belt.

"Meili is pretty brand new at this. Moe wasn't the most high profile in the government caucus either. I'm not sure what to expect," McIntosh said.

"This is going to be a pretty steep learning curve from MLA to leader of the opposition, especially at a time when the Sask. Party seems vulnerable."

Meili told the convention crowd the NDP needs to be more than an opposition party and pledged to listen to people across Saskatchewan. (The Canadian Press/Michael Bell )

Meili said following his win that he was in favour of a "made in Saskatchewan" solution to climate change and supports some form of carbon pricing.

The Saskatchewan Party is leaving federal money on the table and risks having Prime Minister Justin Trudeau impose a plan on the province by not having such a plan in place, Meili said.

"This is going to be a bit of a difficult dance because within the party there's a strong sentiment in favour of putting a price on carbon. He's going to have to get more specific."

For Farney, Moe and Meili both offer different options for Saskatchewan voters.

"I think it's hard to imagine Meili working the mainstreet in Weyburn say as well as Moe will, but I also have trouble seeing Moe in downtown Saskatoon as successfully as Meili," Farney said.

Party unity

When Trent Wotherspoon stepped on stage Saturday to give his final speech to members, he was flanked by six colleagues in the NDP caucus.

Meili's speech followed. In the lead-up to the convention only Saskatoon Nutana NDP MLA Cathy Sproule stood with Meili.

MLAs David Forbes, Vicki Mowat and interim leader Nicole Sarauer did not endorse a candidate.

"This is Meili's first challenge as leader, he's got to reach out to that caucus. There are traditional ways you do that, you appoint some of those people to key positions. You make sure their voices get heard in your deliberations," McIntosh said.

"He's also the leader and he's won with good solid majority of the grassroots of the party and the caucus has to realize this is the man the party chose and they have to respect that decision."

McIntosh said Meili would be wise to give former interim leader Nicole Sarauer a high profile position in opposition.

"She's earned now a serious role in the party. I expect she'll be deputy leader, or house leader."

On Saturday, Sarauer received a tribute video and a standing ovation after leading the party for just eight months.

"She's going to have a constituency in the party that's going to have to be respected. He's got himself a really good lieutenant if he wants it."