Dale Eisler Explains Saskatchewan

Saskatchewan is often on my mind. In graduate school I wrote economics papers about the settling of western Canada which, along with an evocative print of a prairie town, were the topic of a post last summer. In the Nineties, I co-authored a book about public management with Allan Blakeney, who served as Saskatchewan’s premier in the Seventies and early Eighties. As a consequence, I’ve kept an eye on Saskatchewan politics ever since.

Blakeney Spinning in his Grave

I’m well aware that the NDP, which had been Saskatchewan’s natural governing party from the Forties to the early years of this century, has been superseded by the populist Saskatchewan Party. I’ve watched Brad Wall, Saskatchewan’s premier from 2006 to 2018, and considered him to be a person of class, exactly the term he used to describe Allan Blakeney in his eulogy a decade ago.

In contrast, Brad Wall’s successor Scott Moe has always seemed to me mean-spirited, focused only on Saskatchewan and contemptuous of the federal government, and dismissive of science or evidence-based policymaking. Over the years, he has made clear his opposition to carbon pricing and public health restrictions during the pandemic, and his support for the 2022 “freedom convoy.” Dale Eisler, who lives in Saskatchewan, diplomatically calls Moe “not, as they say, overburdened with charisma” (308).

Despite, again in Eisler’s words, Moe “lacking the profile, oratorical flourish, and populist appeal of Brad Wall,” the Saskatchewan Party, with Moe at the helm, won 61 percent of the vote in the 2020 election, almost identical its vote count and percentage in the 2016 election, when Wall was premier. Clearly, the Saskatchewan Party’s strength clearly is rooted in more than charismatic leadership. A desire to understand the sea-change in Saskatchewan politics led me to Dale Eisler’s 2022 book “From Left to Right: Saskatchewan’s Political and Economic Transformation.” To begin, compliments to the publisher, University of Regina Press, on the clever cover graphic.

Political wheat sheaf

Understanding Political Change

Besides the appeal of its subject, I was interested in Eisler’s book because I met him some years ago. I was in Regina to give a presentation, and my host, Professor Ken Rasmussen, invited me and Eisler to dinner. I remember a pleasant conversation and one highlight. We were talking about career politicians, and I mentioned that I met Chuck Schumer the first week of freshman year at our small college near Boston. When we talked about what we wanted to do as adults, Chuck was very specific. He was interested in New York State politics, as a Democrat, and he aspired to an important position like Governor or Senator. Eisler responded that he met Ralph Goodale early in university and Ralph aimed for a major political role in Liberal politics either in Saskatchewan or federally.

Neither Dale nor I viewed his response as a one-up, but rather as a mutual recognition that there are a few people in the world who have mapped out very specific goals early in life and even fewer have eventually achieved them. Remembering our dinner, I was favourably disposed to Eisler’s book.

I wasn’t disappointed. More than that, as soon as I began reading, I was impressed, and finished it in two days. On the one hand, Eisler is steeped in Saskatchewan politics, and it is clear from the text and the notes that he has met and/or interviewed all the key players and has read and analyzed all the key documents. On the other hand, he brings to the book a comparable awareness of the key external trends, such as global developments in the economics of natural resources and changing political ideologies, and their impact on a land-locked polity of approximately one million people.

Why did the NDP collapse? Eisler argues that Saskatchewan’s resource-dominated economy became more diversified and rural agriculture became more consolidated, with the replacement of the family farm with agribusiness, and the Saskatchewan Party put forward policies more receptive to and representative of these trends than did the NDP. In addition, there was an element of path-dependence in that the NDP Government led by Roy Romanow elected in 1991 had as its first and foremost priority balancing the budget and paying down debt incurred by Grant Devine’s previous Conservative Government (1982 – 1991). The Romanow Government’s policies of closing rural acute care hospitals and amalgamating rural governments greatly weakened the NDP’s rural base.

Eisler concludes that “the party that dominates on the farms and small communities by reflecting the reality of modern agriculture in rural Saskatchewan will also dominate government” (241). Eisler describes the current NDP as an urban-based “collection of silos that spends much of its time and energy trying to reconcile the factions within without ever producing a coherent and cohesive narrative that makes sense to the broader public” (305). While Eisler expects that at some point in the future the Saskatchewan Party will be defeated by a party that better understands the challenges of that time, he doesn’t expect the NDP, as currently constituted, to do it. If you are interested in Saskatchewan politics or more broadly in political economy, I strongly encourage you to read Eisler’s book.

The Harper Conjecture

Stephen Harper conjectured that federal politics will evolve to a two-party system, with a centre-right party (the Conservative Party of Canada) and a centre-left party (likely the NDP) and that the centre-right party, because its policies are more reflective of the electorate, would govern three-quarters of the time. This conjecture has not yet been realized at the federal level.

On the other hand, if you look at the provinces, it has more explanatory power. The four western provinces have become two-party systems consisting of NDP and conservatives (though the latter are called the Liberal Party in British Columbia, United Conservative Party in Alberta, and Saskatchewan Party in Saskatchewan) and the four Atlantic provinces primarily Liberals and Conservatives. Ontario and Quebec, however, remain multi-party systems.

Looking at western Canada, Saskatchewan is the one in which conservative rule is most firmly entrenched. Yesterday’s Alberta election showed the strength of the United Conservative Party, winning 52 percent of the popular vote and a majority of the seats, despite a controversial leader, and an effective urban-based NDP opposition. We can say that Harper’s conjecture is at least relevant to the conservative heartland. Its broader applicability is a subject for future posts.

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