(Featured image credit: @swbooster)
Full disclosure – I bought a Saskatchewan NDP membership to vote in their leadership race. I bought a Saskatchewan Party membership to vote in their leadership race too. As of posting this, I have not yet voted in the Saskatchewan NDP leadership election. I also really like both Meili and Wotherspoon, both of whom I know personally (I also like and know personally some Sask Party MLAs, so settle down), so it’s kind of hard to write this post… but there can only be one winner.
I said it was full disclosure.
It is tempting to write the NDP leadership race off as boring at best, inconsequential at worst.
Resist that temptation.
A healthy Opposition is absolutely vital to good governance by the party in power. The role of the Opposition is to challenge government policies, hold the government accountable for its actions, and, often referred to as the “government in waiting”, it is supposed to give voters an alternative in the next election.
The decimated Saskatchewan NDP has failed, more or less, to do any of this, largely since 2011. That equals seven years of the provincial government operating knowing that their colleagues across the Legislative aisle are extremely under-resourced, making it nearly impossible to keep up on scrutinizing all policy-making, decisions and spending. It has equaled almost total freedom, especially when coupled with ever-shrinking Saskatchewan newsrooms, for the Saskatchewan government to do what ever they want.
What could possibly go wrong?
The finger-pointing inside and outside the Saskatchewan NDP party has never really resulted in any sort of significant “aha moment” (thank you Oprah) as to what has gone terribly wrong since the days Dwain Lingenfelter sat in the Opposition Leader’s office. I mean, that’s probably a good start right there, but that run of bad luck transferred, in fact was amplified through the next leader, former Saskatoon MLA Cam Broten, and the doldrums perceived through Trent Wotherspoon’s stint as interim leader.
Despite promising and guaranteeing that he would not attempt the transition from interim to permanent leader, Wotherspoon went on to announce he’d do exactly that. While one would have thought the 14 months he spent auditioning for the job would have given his campaign a significant edge, yet it really does not appear to have made a difference. No clear frontrunner has emerged in the race, which has seen Wotherspoon’s only challenger, Saskatoon Meewasin MLA Ryan Meili, take a significant lead in collecting donations, despite announcing early his campaign would not accept them from unions or corporations.
To be fair, no discussion regarding eliminating political donations can be complete without also addressing lowering the cap on individual donor amounts, which Meili did not. However, in a province that could easily be perceived as being ran by political donors, and after a Sask Party leadership race that saw certain candidates funded almost solely by select corporations and their owners, it’s a blast of fresh air to witness Meili’s ability to raise over $157,000 from actual human beings who have an individual stake in democracy.
It’s hard to say which candidate the Sask Party would love to see installed as Scott Moe’s Opposition counterpart. For a long time the general feeling was it was Meili, given what were expected to be his impractical, idealistic, far-left wing campaign planks, which presumably would scare a predominantly right wing, or centre-right Saskatchewan voting base right back into the arms of the Sask Party in the next general election.
Meili, perhaps with the good sense imbued by the experience of his two previous campaigns, along with now having actually been elected to sit in the NDP caucus he wants to lead, has failed to meet those expectations. While decidedly left wing in flavour, he produced detailed and thoughtful policy, and has unabashedly campaigned on the premise that not only does he represent change, but change is exactly what the Saskatchewan NDP need. It’s difficult to argue with that premise after that party’s showing in the last two elections.
Meanwhile, Trent Wotherspoon, who many perceive as more palatable for the mushy-middle voter, has emerged firmly entrenched in the Saskatchewan NDP status quo – which many Sask Party strategists consider a very good thing. Wotherspoon has rolled out a never-ending reel of endorsements – a veritable who’s who of the names and faces who have been in the trenches as the party has crashed and burned, including former Saskatchewan NDP leader Cam Broten, who failed to lead his party out of the wilderness in 2016’s provincial election, and in fact lost his seat himself. I’m sure they’re all really great people – in fact I know many of them are – and are likely still revered by the subset of the NDP base that clings to the notion that the party’s problem is everyone else, not them.
Regardless, one wonders at the wisdom of associating oneself with the architects of the recent downward spiral of the NDP. I mean, if you were rebuilding a tower, would you promote yourself as the first choice of the arsonist who burnt it down?
What I know for sure is that, just like the SaskParty was a month ago, the Saskatchewan NDP is facing an existential challenge on the subject of change. It may not feel that way right now, given the two men vying for the leadership aren’t exactly fresh faces, both having ran for this job previously.
However, scrape even just a little below the surface and the differences between Meili and Wotherspoon are there.
Those differences are highlighted best by examining the two choices facing the NDP member as they consider their ballot: do they want to hinge their party’s future on the Sask Party government and new premier imploding, leaving Saskatchewan voters little choice but to go back to the NDP, whether they want to or not? Or do they want to risk change (or renewal, as Meili would likely rather it put) – an overhaul of party image and policies in the hopes it can attract voters to come over willingly?
I have to say this, because it seems really obvious as I write this: you know what they say about doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results.
As the Saskatchewan NDP’s new leader is unveiled on March 3rd at the party’s convention in Regina (held at the Delta Hotel, which admittedly surprised me because that’s fancy), it’s unlikely that the entire province will be watching on the edge of their seats.
It’s a decision of vital importance, however, as not only will the NDP’s new leader almost immediately begin shaping the fate of the Sask Party government in the general election two years from now, its new leader could also be the factor determining whether the Saskatchewan NDP still exists two years from now.
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For those of you who care, I’m Tammy Robert. I’m a writer, but pay the bills consulting in political strategy, media and public relations. Feel free to email me anytime about either at firstname.lastname@example.org