'Renewal' needed as Sask. Party marks 20th anniversary: analyst

The 20th anniversary of the formation of the Saskatchewan Party on Tuesday comes at a time when the party needs "renewal" to regain its popularity after an unpopular budget, CBC polls analyst Éric Grenier says.

MLAs from the Liberal and Progressive Conservative parties formed the Sask. Party on Aug. 8, 1997

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall is seen at a news conference in Regina on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Taylor (Mark Taylor/Canadian Press)

The 20th anniversary of the formation of the Saskatchewan Party on Tuesday comes at a time when the party needs "renewal" to regain public support after an unpopular budget, CBC polls analyst Éric Grenier says. 

On Aug. 8, 1997, the political landscape in Saskatchewan changed when the new party was created to challenge the governing NDP.

It would be another 10 years before the party formed its first government in 2007. In the years after they were elected, Grenier said, the party's leadership was credited for economic success in the province, and Premier Brad Wall maintained his popularity with voters.

But now, 10 years since the elation of its first year in government, Grenier says the party is facing its biggest challenges to date. 

"It's starting to catch up to them and all the decisions that they've had to make, the budgetary problems that they've had this year where they brought forward a budget that was very unpopular. And now the party is in need of some renewal," said Grenier. 

Eight men and women

In 1997, four Liberals and four Progressive Conservatives joined to form the Saskatchewan Party. MLAs Bill Boyd, Dan D'Autremont, Ben Heppner and Don Toth were the four former Progressive Conservatives, while Bob Bjornerud, June Draude, Rod Gantefoer and Ken Krawetz made up the former Liberal contingent. 

The party now needs to find somebody to replace [Brad Wall] if he decides not to run in the next election.- CBC polls analyst Éric Grenier

Former Saskatchewan Lt.-Gov. Gordon Barnhart, who is also a political historian and the former clerk of the Canadian Senate, remembers the chain of events that led to the formation of the party. Barnhart is now writing a book about how it was founded.

He said while some members of the Liberal Party were dissatisfied with the leadership at the time, the main motivation behind the creation of the new party was to oust the NDP.

Liberal leadership, vote-splitting concerns behind new party

There were concerns that vote-splitting was allowing the NDP to stay in government even when their support was going down.

"I think there were a lot of people in both the Liberal Party and the [Progressive] Conservative Party that could show statistically that if you added their support together in most of the elections they would have formed government if they were one party," Barnhart told host Garth Marterie on CBC Radio's Blue Sky.

It took 10 years, but the party did form government in 2007. Grenier said the upturn in the oil price was part of the reason for the party's success to date, having remained in power through two elections in 2011 and 2016.

He said it has also been able to unite non-NDP voters to attract both centrist and conservative support, and that it had benefited from a weak NDP at the time of its first election win. 

Trent Wotherspoon is considering a run for the Saskatchewan NDP leadership after resigning as the interim leader. (Matthew Howard/CBC)

New challenges 

Now Grenier says the Saskatchewan Party is facing a challenge he says was common among parties that had been in power for a long time, and something the B.C. Liberals and Manitoba NDP struggled with before their recent losses. 

"That'll be the big challenge for them, is to continue to be a party that can appear to be, not an agent of change, but able to evolve and adapt with changing politics and the changing demographics of the province," Grenier said. 

"But another challenge will be if the New Democrats no longer appear like an opposition party and start to look like an alternative government." 

He said the outcome of the Saskatchewan NDP leadership race could affect its chances, saying the selection of Ryan Meili could make a win harder than a more "centre" candidate like Trent Wotherspoon. 

The future of Wall as the leader of the Saskatchewan Party is also a factor, Grenier said. 

"He is no longer as popular and as free from many, sort of, popularity problems," he said.

"The party now needs to find somebody to replace him if he decides not to run in the next election — someone who can continue the Saskatchewan Party success and its branding as a sound economic manager of the province." 

Grenier added that there were some examples of parties that had successfully overcome the challenges facing long-standing governments to win another election, but that a change of leadership was not a surefire path to success. 

Party formation subject of new book

Before the year is through, the founding of the party and its early years leading up to 2007 will be chronicled in a book by Gail Krawetz, whose husband Ken Krawetz was the eighth and final MLA to join as a founding member.

Although she has a personal connection to the events outlined in the book, entitled "Risk and Reward: The Birth and Meteoric Rise of Saskatchewan Party", Krawetz said she is committed to making it an objective historical account.
Eight MLAs formed the Saskatchewan party on Aug. 8, 1997. (Saskatchewan Party website)

In her interviews with founding members, she said she was surprised by the level of risk the MLAs took to form the party.

"These were two very traditional parties in the province and now they were sort of putting them, I wouldn't say to bed, but they were out of the mix for a while, and starting something brand new and asking them to trust them and come on board," Krawetz said.

"And surprisingly the groundswell of support was quite overwhelming."

Krawetz said she wanted to record the story of the founding of the party while most of the founders are still around to tell it. She believes the story is unique.

Forming Sask. Party was big risk: Krawetz

"I think what was special was that these were sitting MLAs so they had a platform but they didn't have much else," she said.

"There was no money, there was no membership, they didn't even know if they'd get official party status or if they would have their name allowed. Many people argued they shouldn't be allowed to use that name."

Krawetz believes it was partly the personalities of the MLAs, including her husband, that helped gather enough support to win government in Saskatchewan. 

Premier Brad Wall thanked the founding members in a tweet on Tuesday. 

"Thank you Bob, Ken, Ben, June, Rod, Dan, Bill, and Don for your vision to join together in creating one united free-enterprise party for SK," Wall said. 

With files from CBC Radio's Blue Sky