April 7th – I’ve added a note to the bottom of this post.
Much to the chagrin of some of my more partisan Sask Party friends, I cannot celebrate the loss of Cam Broten, both as a MLA and as the Saskatchewan NDP’s leader.
Broten got what the majority of voters in Saskatoon Westview felt he deserved. Politicians understand that defeat is a big part of the game they’ve chosen to play, and it shouldn’t surprise them.
That knowledge doesn’t make easier, though. It won’t vanquish the embarrassment of the NDP doing worse under his leadership than it did under Dwain Lingenfelter. It won’t make the fact he got rejected by virtually the entire province, feel less like failure.
Michelle Rempel, a Calgary-based Conservative Member of Parliament, was an unlikely champion of Broten’s honor.
When I Tweeted my thoughts about a video of Sask Party supporters whooping and embracing, sloshing their beers and bellowing war cries like “We got him!” upon learning Broten had lost his seat, I was swiftly scorned (one Twitter-troll referred to me as a “woman scorned”, because reflexive sexism is all the rage with those types).
Rempel replied to the backlash, Tweeting “Too often, and all stripes do this, we forget our leaders are people. We can celebrate victory without reveling in defeat.”
And defeat it certainly was, resounding and absolute, as it was for the vast majority of NDP candidates across the province.
In 2007 all those whoops and sloppy hugs over a Sask Party win were warranted. Cheering Broten’s 2016 demise was akin to beating a dead dog…pointless and tacky.
There will be a ton of post-mortem on what happened, but right now my question is, did Cam Broten ever really have a chance?
It goes without saying that his odds were formidable, squaring off against a guy who no other politician in Canada would want to campaign against.
Every time Broten said anything about himself becoming Saskatchewan’s next Premier, the automatic response in everyone’s mind, including that of his own supporters, was “you won’t be”.
In fact, that negative response to Cam Broten was hardwired into our brains long before the 2016 campaign kicked off. It wasn’t a negative response to Broten personally, per se, as much as it was to the concept of Broten – in other words, the concept of a NDP leader, or any leader for that matter, knocking off Brad Wall.
It was never plausible, therefore every time he suggested it, our response, consciously or otherwise, was somewhere between “yeah right” and “you’re delusional”.
The obvious hurdle of Wall’s popularity aside, Broten’s biggest challenges probably came more from within his own ranks.
Now, I can hear you saying to yourself, “He’s the leader – he should have led!”, and even if he couldn’t win, he should have made gains. You’re not wrong, but it’s not that simple either.
Remember, the Saskatchewan NDP is 50 years old.
They’re the grumpy, sometimes confused aunt to the Sask Party’s youthful exuberance.
That’s fifty years of baggage, ego and ideology dragging down the NDP brand. The Saskatchewan NDP today, and that of fifty years ago, are two very different parties. The leader’s job is to unite both sides and merge the generational gap between ideologies, through dialogue with riding associations, on the executive, and everywhere else they might
Also attached to that baggage is cash. Leftwingers already aren’t exactly renowned for their willingness to part with their cash, and irritated donors don’t donate. Without donations you don’t have a viable party, or the resources to campaign.
Point is – Broten was trying to keep a lot of his own people happy.
Broten also didn’t have control of who filled the other leadership spots in his party. In 2013 former MLA Frank Quennel, who had just lost his seat, was inexplicably appointed Saskatchewan NDP CEO and provincial secretary, to take the party forward.
As we know this ended very, very badly – but Broten did not appoint him, the former NDP president did, and Broten should have been able to count on Quennell to do his job.
Early in the campaign Quennell was replaced by some young guy with a PhD in philosophy (so relatable! who better to know what the people want), and Broten was additionally supported by a group of other “12-year-olds” as one NDP insider put it (though I’m doubting youth were behind the mind-bogglingly ill-advised privatization campaign strategy.)
In his own riding of Saskatoon Westview, Broten wasn’t just the victim of new Sask Party MLA David Buckingham’s crack campaign team. According to Sask Party insiders, the party’s central campaign poured resources into Buckingham’s campaign, including having their unfortunately named ‘scat’ team knocking doors in the riding regularly, bolstering Buckingham’s campaign efforts.
(A certain mediaface has been gloating about how they “predicted” Broten’s loss. There was no prediction, they just knew all about the Sask Party’s internal strategy in that riding.)
Is the blood between Broten and Wall that bad?
I don’t think so.
Going into a leadership race that will, barring some miracle, weaken the Sask Party considerably just based on the fact that Wall won’t be its leader anymore, culling Broten was about 2020.
The best case scenario for a weakened party going into the 2020 election, is that the other party is even weaker- the fastest way to cripple your opponent is take out their leader.
Finally, you have the elephant that’s been in the room since 2009: Ryan Meili.
I was at the NDP leadership convention in Regina in 2009, and it was something else.
Former NDP MLA Deb Higgins was knocked out in the first ballot, then Yens Pederson dropped out on his own. Both then threw their support behind Ryan Meili, who would go up against Dwain Lingenfelter.
This setup NDP delegates’ choice on the second ballot: old guard versus new guard.
Except the new guard was a lot like Tommy Douglas, and the old guard had just left his job at a big oil corporation. Can you blame delegates for being confused?
Dwain Lingenfelter won that day with 55 per cent of the vote. If you listened carefully you could hear the NDP’s numbers start dropping before he even commenced his victory speech.
The other story that day was the absolute devastation of Meili’s supporters, many of whom sobbed like he had just keeled over and died. They were inconsolable. It was nuts. You could hear them crying all over Queensbury Convention Centre; many of them still wailed in the halls after everyone else had left.
Same deal in the NDP’s 2013 leadership race – Trent Wotherspoon dropped off the ballot after the first vote, which saw Meili leading both Broten and Wotherspoon. On the second ballot Wotherspoon’s votes split right up the middle, pushing Broten over Meili by 44 votes, or 0.3%. Not exactly a clear mandate.
“Forgiveness and healing” became the order of the day, with NDP activists immediately putting the pressure upon Broten to make amends.
“The win of Cam Broten indicates that NDP in Saskatchewan will take a middle of the road course in Saskatchewan, vying for the votes of the centre to somehow achieve power — a sort of liberal NDP approach,” wrote longtime, Saskatoon-based socialist-activist Don Kossick. “In doing this they will be missing the dynamic messaging and organizing that the Ryan Meili campaign embodied.”
“Coming out of the convention there was much talk of all people coming together, showing a united front. However, united fronts only work if there is a basis of unity,” Kossick continued. “Maybe this time around there are people around Cam Broten who can help him understand the basis of unity that has to be forged with the other half of the party.”
Okay, but Kossick missed the part about the “other half of the party” also being willing to “understand the basis of unity”.
Both Broten and Meili have been criticized internally for not being team players, not making the effort to ensure they, or their disciples, got along.
Arguably, why should Meili have made the effort? He didn’t win the job, and he’s never been secretive about the fact that he’s not ideologically aligned with Broten.
The problem is, moves like this don’t exactly help unite or promote the party you once wanted to lead. This will come back to haunt Meili should he grasp the opportunity now to take a third run at the top spot.
Anyway, to recap:
- Broten went up against of the most popular leaders in Canada, one who has enjoyed a decade of record high approval ratings;
- He had what appeared to be a shitty support team, which wasn’t completely his fault*;
- His own base is insurmountably divided for reasons that preceded his leadership, and likely will continue with the next.
I couldn’t have done it. There’s no way I could have looked at these obstacles and still went ahead, throwing my name and my face into a ring where I very likely was going to get destroyed.
Maybe in your opinion, doing so makes Broten stupid. Which is fine.
In my opinion, though, jumping into a fight where the odds were stacked so high against him makes Broten worthy not necessarily of accolades, but it does make him worthy of at least a modicum of respect from those who appreciate that politics is a vicious game, and not one for the faint of heart – especially because I’d bet that most of those that appreciate that also wouldn’t have had the balls to attempt what Broten tried to do.
*A number of you have emailed me and told me that Cam Broten did indeed handpick Frank Quennell for the role of Saskatchewan NDP CEO and provincial secretary, so it’s a lot more Broten’s fault than I originally thought. I’m still not celebrating Broten’s loss, but I’m sure as hell feeling less sympathy for him.