Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Recap: Saskatchewan Election 2011

Watching the twitter feed for #skpoli I was struck by the animosity and venom towards both the NDP and its leader Dwain Lingenfelter.  While the partisan in me wants to chalk this up to the over-indulgent no-holds-barred mentality that I have witness Sask. Party/Conservative/Canadian Alliance supporters adopt in the past, I also recognize that when you enter into a team-first mentality no one's supporters are any better.  Sport fans know the sensation to inexplicably detest a particular team and their supporters.  Political parties are just a different form of sports franchise - supporters are guided more by emotion and loyalty than reason.
Perhaps the most pertinent, the NDP are not responsible for the Roughriders atrocious season just like the Saskatchewan Party was not responsible for the Roughriders 2007 Grey Cup winning season.  The Riders and the Sask Party may have legions of fans at the moment, but there was a time when neither was as popular.  Plus despite sharing the colour green, and having the ex-player as a candidate the Riders and the Sask Party are not one and the same.
 A big problem was that the NDP’s message never caught on.  The some-got-left-behind / not-everyone-is-benefitting-from-the-boom message, while accurate, clearly did not resonate with voters.  It could be that those who are left behind stayed home.  Perhaps it was not clear enough how the NDP stood apart from the Sask Party. 
In many ways, the NDP would have been hard pressed to have come up with a message that successively countered the positive sentiment in the province mixed with their past over-reliance of demonizing the Sask Party.  The NDP spent ten years denouncing the Sask Party: their message was focused on how the Sask Party would be a return to the Grant Devine years of selling off Crown assets, laying off civil servants, and running the province into ruins.  When the Sask Party finally got to power, and Saskatchewan did not go to hell and the NDP's message proved false.  After four years in government, the Sask Party is not so scary.  It is the NDP that now has to rebrand itself.
One has to point out the irony that the party that was at the frontlines denouncing everything good about Saskatchewan is the one that is credited with providing an improved atmosphere.  Saskatchewan had balanced budgets, a booming economy, a rising housing market and had become a have-province under the NDP prior to the Sask Party coming to power.  However, when the Sask Party was in opposition you would never have known it.  Since coming to power, aside from labour legislation, there is little on the surface to suggest that they are running the province differently then their predecessors. 
More then messaging, the biggest problem was the leadership issue.  Brad Wall has transformed himself from being an anti-government vein-bulging howler (literally) in opposition, to a bespeckled moderate centrist Premier.  My personal experience of Wall, dating from his opposition critic days, was that the latter, i.e. moderate version, is probably truer to himself.  Regardless, Saskatchewanians have embraced Premier Brad Wall. 
Dwain Lingenfelter has been the centre of derision for many years - even before he left Roy Romanow's Cabinet.  The party appeared to select him partly because there was no other serious contenders and partly because he they wanted to believe he would return the party to power.  In this the party started believing its own myth of, like the Liberals federally, being Saskatchewan's natural ruling party.  Also like the federal Liberals, once out of power they have had a difficult time articulating what they stand for.  Throughout the last incarnation of the NPD in power, they relied on the philosophy they were good managers.  In politics being a good manager may keep you in power, but it does not topple a government. Voters want something they can embrace, a vision, a leader they can trust.  Lingenfelter did not embody these qualities and the party has continued its identity slide. Instead, what the voters saw was a leader that flip-flopped on major policy issues (wheat board, nuclear power), and that was only interested in power.  These were the sins that have cost the Liberals federally - being in the centre can bring in supporters who want a safe choice, but the pursuit of power does not give supporters a flag to wrap themselves in. 
Credit must also be given to the Saskatchewan Party who successfully transplanting the Conservatives not-a-leader / not-a-Canadian attack on Liberal leaders and transformed it into the he-did-not-come-back-for-you smearing of Lingenfelter.  In a province that has so long accepted that its citizens should move to Calgary, it is strange that they would begrudge a leader who did exactly that. 
Another message aired over Twitter was the jeering of the “Orange Crush” by-passing Saskatchewan.  I do not believe that is a true representation of the election.  Voters were faced with two known leaders – both of whom they had made their minds up about long before the Orange wave crashed the federal election.  Also, the message behind the Orange Crush was one of change, of hope  - a desire for something different and positive.  In this election, if either of the two leaders represented this, it was Brad Wall.  The province just had the NDP in power for 16 years – in the voters mind the NDP did not represent a new approach but a return to the old.
The final observation on yesterday’s election is that the significant drop in the Liberal vote also hurt the NDP.  The NDP has never won an election when the Liberals received below double-digit support.  The NDP needs the Liberals (or another centre-right party) to give non-NDP supporters a choice to vote for.  At 0.6% of the vote, and the Sask Party at unprecedented levels of support, it is clear where that support went to.
While the 2011 election was as much vindication for the Saskatchewan Party and conservatives in general, it was also a rebuke to the NDP.  It is clear the NDP cannot return to business as usual – they have to rediscover themselves. 
The silver lining, if there is one, may be that the bigger the target, the easier to hit.  But this still means that the NDP is in the wilderness and must find a way to reconnect with voters.  Now is an opportune time to trade ideas with the Manitoba NDP: the Manitoba NDP must learn how to stay fresh after a decade in power, while the Saskatchewan NDP could look at Gary Doer’s slow build of the party in opposition.  With such a strong mandate, the Saskatchewan Party will really have to screw up to be kicked out of office in 2015 – but this gives the NDP to get out, road test their message and be better prepared to challenge in all ridings in the coming elections.
Essential to the NDPs future direction and renewal will be the leader – and this time around they need a vigorous contest.  But before that, they need an interim leader.  John Nilson (Regina Lakeview) or Warren McCall (Regine Elphinstone Centre) (should Warren McCall not seek the leadership himself), would both be excellent candidates to focus the caucus and steer the ship until the next leader.
Yesterday is behind us.  Time to move forward.

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