Saskatchewan New Democrats eye generation shift

After a crushing defeat that nearly wiped the party off the political map, the Saskatchewan NDP is about to pick a new leader to help it rebuild.
Three men are in the running for the leadership of the Saskatchewan NDP. (CBC )

After a crushing defeat that nearly wiped the party off the political map, the Saskatchewan NDP is about to pick a new leader to help it rebuild.

The party that Tommy Douglas founded is down to just nine of the 58 seats in the Saskatchewan legislature and desperately needs to find a way to reconnect with voters. Many think a younger, more energetic leader is the key.

"It's clear this is a chance for them to kind of shift to a new generation of leader," according to Jim Farney, a University of Regina political science professor.

"They're moving past kind of the [former premier Roy] Romanow generation of leadership and trying to sort out what that means."

Three men — Saskatoon MLA Cam Broten, Saskatoon doctor Ryan Meili and Regina MLA Trent Wotherspoon — are in the leadership race that will conclude with a vote Saturday at the party's convention in Saskatoon.

 All of candidates are under the age of 40 — Broten is 34, Meili is 37 and Wotherspoon is 33  — and more than two decades younger than former NDP leader Dwain Lingenfelter, who was 60 when he took the helm of the party in 2009.

Farney says that generational shift is important for the NDP to mount a credible challenge to Brad Wall, a popular premier whose Saskatchewan Party captured 64 per cent of the vote in the 2011 provincial election. Wall is 47.

"It's important in just optics terms, but I think it's also important in terms of policy," said Farney. "I think everybody's agreed that Saskatchewan's changed a lot in the last 10 years."

"The NDP needs, I think, to kind of embrace the optimism that Wall has captured, to embrace the kind of Saskatchewan is moving onwards and upwards and all of that," he added.

Farney said he is surprised that the NDP leadership race hasn't seemed to capture much attention outside the party.

The professor noted that a story about a giant icicle in Saskatoon got more coverage the weekend before the leadership convention, despite the fact that candidates have been all over the province. He says there's no clear front-runner and no other big political story.

"All of these things should have encouraged a lot of connection and it just hasn't, to my mind, really seemed to capture people's attention," said Farney.

"I don't know why, to be honest. It's odd, it's really odd."

But Farney suggested it could be problematic, too.

"For a party that knows it needs to rejuvenate itself and is looking for young leaders that are able to engage the population with new ideas, the fact that the population doesn't even realize here's a competition going on is a problem because outside of an election, this is kind of the moment when people are going to pay attention to them."

Interim NDP Leader John Nilson, who took over when Lingenfelter resigned after the 2011 provincial election, thinks the leadership race has attracted attention.

Nilson also said the race is a chance for a generational change, but not a "make or break" time for the party.

"In politics, all things are make or break," Nilson said Thursday. "There are cycles, but all of the decisions that you make over the years are part of who you are and so we're very excited about this because it's going to send a signal for the next couple of decades about where New Democrats are."