Saskatchewan’s recurring political narrative

By: Sandford BorinsLet's look at the current political campaign in the context of Saskatchewan's political history for the last six decades, because there is a clear, recurring pattern.The NDP, then CCF, was first elected in 1944, led by Tommy Douglas. The CCF was a model of effective and efficient democratic socialist government, staying in power until 1964. Its defeat in 1964 was a result of opposition, particularly by doctors, to universal public health insurance, which it introduced in 1962, and the departure of the charismatic Douglas to the federal stage in 1961.Liberal Premier Ross Thatcher, elected in 1964, ran a small-c conservative government. He also went to great lengths to purge the public service of senior public servants whom he felt were too closely identified with the NDP. Many of them left for the federal public service, had stellar careers, and became known as the “Saskatchewan mafia.”Thatcher was defeated in 1971 by the NDP's Allan Blakeney, a former public servant and minister in the Douglas government. (Full disclosure: I am the co-author with Allan Blakeney of Political Management in Canada, which discusses the Saskatchewan NDP approach to managing a government). Blakeney restored the NDP tradition of well-managed democratic socialist government, fought the federal government for control of resource revenues, and rebuilt the public service.Blakeney was defeated in 1982 by Conservative Grant Devine. The NDP government, realizing that Canada was heading into a recession at the time, was modest in its promises. Devine wasn't, and ran an optimistic campaign encapsulated in the slogan, “There is so much more we can be.”In power, Devine's government implemented expensive programs at a time of falling commodity prices and a weak economy, ultimately leading to deficits. The public service was once again purged, with 1,500 public servants terminated shortly after Devine took power. Devine was re-elected with a majority of seats, but fewer total votes than the NDP, in 1986. He was defeated in 1991 by the NDP, led by Roy Romanow, who had been deputy premier under Blakeney. The NDP had to deal with the large deficit bequeathed them by Devine and also rebuild the public service.The pattern is clear. The NDP provides well-managed statist government, and its opponents to the right roll back NDP policies (for example through privatization) and weaken the public service and the overall capacity of the state. Unfortunately, Ross Thatcher's Liberals and Grant Devine's Conservatives never recognized that there is a difference between restricting the scope of the state's activities and crippling its capacity to function. This is a distinction that Margaret Thatcher – no relation to Ross – and Brian Mulroney understood but George Bush doesn't (think about the response to Hurricane Katrina).The polls tell us the Saskatchewan Party has a reasonable chance of forming the next government. If it does, will it take its cues from Margaret Thatcher or from Grant Devine? My colleague Ken Rasmussen at the University of Regina eloquently made the case in the Regina Leader Post a few weeks ago for avoiding another public service purge.Put differently, three times (Douglas in the forties and fifties, Blakeney in the seventies, Romanow in the nineties and Calvert in this decade) Saskatchewan has had the NDP as the thesis, and twice it has had small-c conservatives (Ross Thatcher in the sixties and Grant Devine in the eighties) as the antithesis. Will there ever be a synthesis?

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