Saskatchewan's former coalition government remembered

Saskatchewan's experience with a coalition government could offer some lessons to politicians in Ottawa today, according to a former member of the province's NDP-Liberal alliance.

Saskatchewan's experience with a coalition government could offer some lessons to politicians in Ottawa today, according to a former member of the province's NDP-Liberal alliance.

Jack Hillson, who's been out of politics for years, was part of the three-member Liberal caucus that formed a coalition with Premier Roy Romanow's New Democrats in 1999.

It was the last time in Canada that a coalition of different parties led a province. In the Saskatchewan example, the NDP was the dominant partner with 29 seats.

Hillson was a minister in Romanow's cabinet, but left the coalition in 2001. The two remaining Liberals ran as New Democrats —unsuccessfully — in 2003.

In the wake of the coalition, there was a historic change in Saskatchewan politics —  the Liberals failed to win a single seat in two consecutive elections.

"Our coalition failed because it didn't have the support of the party membership," Hillson said Tuesday. "Liberal supporters … many considered it a betrayal."

As well, he said, among NDP ranks, the merger raised concerns about the rightward drift of the Romanow government.

In the current case, it appears that if anybody's angry, it's Conservative supporters, Hillson said.

Although the coalition deal signed Monday between federal Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion and his NDP counterpart Jack Layton is set to expire in 2011, Hillson thinks it could result in a merger of the two parties into a single centre-left party.

If the parties want to avoid that, they will need to think about an exit strategy, he said.

Meanwhile, considering that most people in Western Canada voted Conservative, having power taken away in this fashion could breed Western alienation, he said.

"I think it's unfortunate for Saskatchewan," Hillson said.