As Saskatchewan Party veterans step down, who will step up?

by Gregory Beatty


provinceSince the Saskatchewan Party first won election in 2007, it’s embraced Rider Pride as a symbol of its commitment to Saskatchewan. And with the Riders a dominant CFL power, with two championships and two other Grey Cup appearances in the Wall government’s seven-year tenure, it’s proven to be smart politics.

This year, though, the fates of the two “teams” seem especially intertwined.

As Rider fans well know, the Green & White lost some key players in the off-season. So did the Sask. Party. And while Ken Krawetz (Finance), June Draude (Social Services) and Rob Norris (Advanced Education) may not have the same name recognition as Weston Dressler, Kory Sheets and Craig Butler, they were Sask. Party veterans. And in the last few months they, along with several other caucus MLAs, have announced they won’t be running in the next election set for November 2015 or April 2016.

Despite the Riders’ losses, the team’s fans are likely optimistic heading into 2014. The O-line is rock solid, QB Darian Durant is a stellar playoff performer, Corey Chamblin remains head coach, a decent pipeline’s in place to recruit talent and most of their CFL rivals have weaknesses that the Riders are good enough to exploit.

Sask. Party supporters shouldn’t feel discouraged either, says University of Saskatchewan political scientist David McGrane.

“This isn’t necessarily rats fleeing a sinking ship,” he says. “Recent polls suggest the Saskatchewan Party remains popular.”

Draude and Krawetz, he adds, had been in politics for a long time. As Liberals, in fact, they —  along with ex-Ag Minister Bob Bjornerud (who’s resigning as well) and Rod Gantefoer (ex-Finance, resigned in 2011) — formed a coalition with four PC MLAs in 1997 to create the Sask. Party.

Other MLAs such as Rob Norris and Darryl Hickie perhaps felt advancement opportunities were slim and are moving on. And Bill Hutchinson was defeated for the party nomination.

All of that, says McGrane, “is perfectly normal.

“And it’s probably actually good for the government and the province to get some fresh blood,” he adds.

Still, there are potential concerns.

“You’re taking away some experienced players, and the Saskatchewan Party doesn’t have a strong bench,” says McGrane. “What’s that going to mean for the future? It could mean more mistakes by ministers. And what kind of people end up taking their places? Will they be lackluster, or will the party attract some superstar candidates?”

Another wrinkle is the possible impact of the departures on party values, says McGrane’s U of S colleague, Charles Smith.

“When the Saskatchewan Party was founded it was a hybrid of disgruntled Liberals and Conservatives, and everyone else who was clamoring for a viable option to defeat the NDP. It’s possibly just a coincidence, but the people who are leaving are mostly Liberal. And it does make one wonder if there’s some internal discussions about what the party wants to do.”

At present, the prospect of the NDP resurrecting itself is likely still enough of a boogeyman to keep the coalition together. But suppose the Sask. Party wins another comfortable majority next election, as polls suggest it’s destined to do?

“Will they become Saskatchewan’s natural governing party?” asks McGrane. “What will that do to the coalition? Every coalition stays together for awhile, but as we’ve seen in Alberta, they break apart.”

Ah yes, Alberta, where the right-wing Wildrose Party seems poised to topple the long-running Progressive Conservative government. Could a, say, Tigerlily Party (after our provincial flower) flourish here?

“It’s interesting to think that the party might be opening itself up to a more conservative base,” says Smith.

“But at the same time, Mr. Wall hasn’t governed that way. And the question remains: what would the party gain by moving to the right? Some of their polling may show they’re vulnerable on certain issues. But where else is the right of centre vote going to go?”

If there is some ideological infighting, the first sign of it could come when Wall shuffles his cabinet to replace the departing ministers. That could happen as early as June. Another indicator will be who wins the nomination battles in the ridings that are being vacated.

“I suspect strategists have been looking closely at those ridings and grooming possible successors like municipal politicians who could step in and perform well in a provincial role,” says Smith.

Another wild card is Wall himself. He’s committed to winning a third term. But what happens after that?

“There’s hasn’t been a premier who’s been in office for 20 years since the 1970s,” says McGrane. “You think of Joey Smallwood, Tommy Douglas, Ernest Manning. In recent times, popular premiers usually have a 10-year premiership. You think of Gary Doer, Frank McKenna and Danny Williams.

“They usually try to leave at their high point after they win three elections, which Wall would’ve done. Then two years into their third mandate they leave because there are opportunities that are as interesting, and frankly more interesting, than being premier.”

In Wall’s case, one position he’s been touted for is Canadian ambassador in Washington, D.C.

As far as replacements go, one name that stands out for Smith is Dustin Duncan.

“He’s a senior cabinet minister [Health] who is young and energetic — everything Wall was a decade ago,” says Smith.

But other candidates could emerge, both within the existing caucus or from the pool of new recruits. And if the new leader tilts more to the right than the centrist Wall, the party could shift too.

As Leader-Post columnist Murray Mandryk observed in a column on Draude and Krawetz’s retirement, in which he described them as the party’s “heart” and “conscience”, there are Sask. Party MLAs such as Nancy Heppner, Tim McMillan and Jeremy Harrison, who “learned their politics in the hard-hearted Conservative/Reform ranks.”

If they emerged in the post-Wall era as party stalwarts, might that lead to a splintering by the party’s, um, left (such as it is)?

“It’s not inconceivable that we could see another party emerge,” says Smith. “For the NDP, the best-case scenario would be a revived Liberal party. We’re starting to see that in Manitoba, where the NDP’s in its fourth term and looking tired. But the Progressive Conservatives have dropped the ball numerous times, and now there’s a revived Liberal party nipping at their heels.

But NDP supporters shouldn’t get their hopes too high, says Smith.

“The federal and provincial Liberals do seem more energized now than at any point in the last few years. I suspect that’s due partly to the federal Liberals doing so well, but provincially there’s no organization, so it would take a lot of work.”