Sask is set to re-elect the right but Canada’s moving left

Politics by Gregory Beatty

Barring a major upset, the Brad Wall-led Saskatchewan Party will sweep to victory on April 4. The best-case scenario for the NDP is they hold on to their current nine seats and pick up a few ridings in Regina and Saskatoon to give them a credible bench in opposition.

Realistically that would be the best-case scenario for Saskatchewan too, as the last thing any province needs is a government drunk on power and privilege.

The Wall government showed signs of slippage on that front in its second term, and some of those files are subject to ongoing investigation.

Then there’s our struggling economy — with resource prices not expected to bounce back soon, the next few years could be very challenging.

Another wild card is the changing of the guard occurring within the Sask. Party. Most of the heavyweights who have retired, as it happens, were Liberals before joining disgruntled Progressive Conservatives and Reformers in 1997 to form the Sask. Party. Will that translate into a rightward shift for the party, or will Wall continue to steer a centre-right course?

If it’s the former, and the economy really hits the skids, it could lead to program cuts and a fire sale of public assets.

Adding fuel to the fire is the strong stance Wall’s taken on the national and even international stage as a self-styled spokesperson for conservatism. Politically, Saskatchewan has arguably paid a price for Wall’s partisanship — as it’s inevitably brought the province into conflict with the Justin Trudeau-led Liberal government (which enjoys strong approval ratings of its own at the federal level).

Yes, Wall can play the “us against them” card that typically works well when dealing with Ottawa. But when you’re also aligned against every other province and territory, and a large chunk of the world (as Wall was when he opposed carbon pricing at a March First Ministers meeting in Vancouver), it’s a much tougher sell.

Wall’s grandstanding is playing out against a backdrop of conservative hand-wringing on the future of the movement in the wake of the Harper government’s defeat last October. That reached a fever pitch at the Manning Centre Conference in Ottawa in late February.

“Recharging the Right” was the theme, and with a federal Conservative leadership convention set for May 2017, prominent candidates to replace Harper such as Jason Kenney, Lisa Raitt, Michael Chong, Maxine Bernier, Kevin O’Leary, Kellie Leitch, Michelle Remple and Peter MacKay were on hand to offer their input on how to return the party to Canadians’ good graces.

The environment was one issue that was discussed. In government, the Harper Conservatives were flagrantly contemptuous to climate concerns.

And University of Saskatchewan political scientist Charles Smith doesn’t know if they have it within themselves to change.

“The Conservatives are so closely tied to oil extraction, especially in the west,” says Smith. “They have all their support in this region; they’re financially tied to the oil sector in very specific ways, so it’s almost impossible for them to see beyond what we saw with Harper which was more drilling, more extraction, more exports to emerging markets. That’s their economic vision, and I see nothing from the party that would move beyond that.

“This was one issue the Liberals were able to differentiate themselves on,” Smith adds. “They want to build an economy that’s based on people and their talents, not just what’s in the ground.”

Another issue that got aired at the Manning Conference was inclusivity. With Jason Kenney (a.k.a. Minister of Curry in a Hurry) leading the charge, the Conservatives made major inroads into Canadian ethnic communities that had traditionally supported the federal Liberals.

A lot of the goodwill was squandered during the October election, says Smith. “That ‘old stock Canadian’ comment was a deliberate plant, and definitely a shout out to some really reactionary stuff. I think that spoke to tensions within the party.

“My colleague at the University of Regina, Jim Farney, made an observation a year or two ago that one thing that differentiated conservatives in Canada versus conservatives in Europe and even the U.S. was they didn’t have that same open xenophobia [see sidebar]. Arguably, Harper and his campaign team jettisoned that during the 2015 election. And it backfired miserably.”

Smith wonders too if demographics might be working against the Conservatives.

“We know through polling that young people are talking about wealth redistribution, more money for social services such as education and health care, democratic reform,” he says. “But the Conservatives have no other economic vision than cutting taxes, balancing the budget at all costs, and drilling more oil.”

With the recent federal budget, the Liberals did a 180 from that strategy and committed to address long-standing deficiencies in funding for Indigenous Peoples, municipal infrastructure, low- and middle-income families, green energy, education and the arts.

Acting Conservative leader Rona Ambrose called the budget, with its projected $30 billion deficit, a “nightmare” for Canadians. But the budget has plenty of supporters too.

To begin with, Canada is in good financial shape overall. We have a low debt-to-GDP ratio, and interest rates are low, so taking on some debt to set the country on a course to thrive in the 21st century makes sense to a lot of people.

“Even neoliberal economists are making that case,” says Smith. “It’s not just the left.

“One thing we know for sure is during the Harper years capital was hoarding billions in cash and not reinvesting in the economy. The Liberals recognize that. They’re not borrowing for big new social programs; what they’re trying to do is shake capital vigorously to free up some of that cash so they can get the economy moving.”

Japan, Ireland, Spain and Greece are only a few of the countries who are currently wrestling with the challenge of how to re-energize economies that have been squeezed by 30 years of neoliberal orthodoxy tied to unregulated markets and growing disparities in wealth.

“Right now, the only country that’s showing any signs of life economically is the U.S.,” says Smith. “So the Obama experiment, while arguably it didn’t go far enough, seems to have been successful in that it stimulated demand.

“That’s exactly what Trudeau’s trying to replicate here in Canada.”

Deficit financing is one area, it seems, where Wall is in agreement with the Trudeau Liberals. As premier, he’s rung up five deficits in nine years.

And barring the aforementioned drastic program cuts and fire sale of public assets, plenty of red ink looms in our immediate future.

Despite repeated avowals on his part, Wall remains in the conversation as a potential federal Conservative leadership candidate. But while he may enjoy strong support in Saskatchewan, it’s hard to see the broader movement he represents returning to power any time soon in Canada.

Meanwhile In America

Why the Trump mobs are karma for Republicans’ conservative elites

The U.S. presidential election is in November.

It looks like it’ll be a doozy.

The Trump phenomenon is part of the story obviously, but the larger drama playing out south of the border is the possible implosion of the Republican Party.

“You’re seeing a real fracturing, and it’s characterized by really racist and sexist attitudes,” says Charles Smith. “And the fact that a guy like Ted Cruz, who quite frankly is a radical right-winger, is now getting endorsements from so-called mainstream Republicans shows how broken that party is.”

Prominent Republicans accuse Trump and his rabid followers of hijacking the party, but Smith questions that assertion.

“In many ways, the Tea Party was a racist reaction to Obama’s election,” says Smith. And the Republican mainstream was happy to take that reactionary element and use that energy to try to defeat the Democrats in 2012.

“They had some success at the state level and in Congress, but they weren’t able to defeat Obama. Now, [Tea Party-style social conservatives] are turning on the Republican establishment, so in many ways they are now victims of what they encouraged.”

Fueling discontent is the declining fortunes of what was once a bedrock of American society: the working class.

“Their jobs have been exported to lower wage economies, which was the project of neoliberalism for 30 years,” says Smith. “They have no economic opportunities, post-secondary education is out of reach for most, so they’re grasping for answers. And outside of a mobilized left, or unions, or a Bernie Sanders-type campaign, they’re embracing right-wing nationalism.

How bad is it?

“I’m not going to make a comparison to Germany in the 1930s because I think that’s extreme,” says Smith. “But I think the better comparison is Italy [with Mussolini].

“The right wants to blame the government and Obama, and the left wants to blame the wealthy,” he says. “And I think the left has a far more credible argument, and is better situated to explain it.”

“But the right’s been fueling the fears and I think that’s a real concern.” /Gregory Beatty