After a rough election Trent Wotherspoon maps out the opposition’s positions
Politics by Gregory Beatty
Following Cam Broten’s resignation as NDP leader on April 11, the 10-member caucus appointed Regina Rosemont MLA Trent Wotherspoon as opposition leader. A few days later, his status as interim party leader was confirmed at a provincial council meeting in Saskatoon.
Wotherspoon has ruled out a leadership bid himself, but he sits as interim leader at a crucial time in the party and province’s history. The legislature is to resume sitting on May 17, and the Saskatchewan Party will deliver its long-delayed (and much anticipated/dreaded) budget on June 1.
To get a sense of what to expect from a Wotherspoon-led NDP opposition in the coming session, I sat down with him in his legislative office a few days before this issue went to press. Here’s our conversation.
You named your shadow cabinet on April 21. What’s the thought process you had in assigning the portfolios?
We have a small team — much smaller than we were hoping for. But it’s a mighty team, with strength, diversity and experience that we can draw on. In allocating the shadow cabinet responsibilities it was a matter of working to ensure MLAs were in files they felt passionate about, had a background in, and that I know they will perform well in. It’s a reflection too that we are a team, and that within caucus we’re going to have many leaders.
One exciting change is seeing Cathy Sproule, a strong, experienced Saskatoon MLA, take on Finance at a very important time where we have a government that hasn’t been accountable and frankly didn’t manage our finances responsibly during the [recent boom]. Now we’re facing tighter times, and I know Cathy will be strong both for our caucus and for all Saskatchewan people.
As well, we’ve just elected two incredible MLAs in Regina in Carla Beck and Nicole Sarauer. Not only will they serve their constituents with distinction, they’ll also provide a great service to the province. Carla has a rich background in education and has served as a public school board member, so she will provide important leadership as Education and early learning and childcare critic. This government has far too often neglected classrooms and students, and Carla will be a real champion in a portfolio that’s important to the future of the province.
Similarly, it’s exciting to see someone with the strength and intelligence of Nicole step into her role as Justice critic and critic for women and immigration.
You mentioned Cathy Sproule’s responsibility in Finance. One of your responsibilities is Economy. Presumably, that’s a reflection of the strained circumstances we find ourselves in?
Through the boom period, Saskatchewan people and businesses stepped up to the plate and worked hard. But far too often the Sask. Party government neglected its responsibility. During a time of record revenues, they boasted and coasted instead of using that special opportunity to strengthen Saskatchewan for the future. They couldn’t balance the books at the best of times, so there’s definite concern during tighter times. Neither did they take the opportunity of windfall resource revenues to diversify and strengthen the economy. They didn’t make investments they should have in renewable energy. They haven’t properly supported some of the innovation and development that should have been leading the new economy. The harsh reality for many Saskatchewan people is that they’re facing job loss and precarious employment. We understand that reality, and we’re going to be focused on ensuring we create and protect the good jobs Saskatchewan people need today and into the future.
What thoughts do you have about the government’s failure to present a forthright picture of our finances prior to the election?
I think it’s entirely unacceptable that the Sask. Party wouldn’t come clean as to the true state of our finances and the size of the deficit. Even now, they continue to delay the budget and disclosure to the Saskatchewan people. People deserve a government that’s honest and forthright, and that delivers budgets that prioritize the right areas for Saskatchewan. It’s pretty disappointing, for instance, to see our education system in such dire straits. We should have the best classrooms in Canada with proper supports to ensure students have the opportunity to succeed, as that’s the foundation to our future.
Apart from fiscal and economic matters, there are other issues such as land transfers at the Global Transportation Hub, the Regina bypass and carbon capture to be concerned about.
We’ll be fully engaged to ensure accountability for Saskatchewan people. The reality is we’ve witnessed obscene waste on project after project under the Sask. Party, and massive questions remain. There’s an investigation under way right now by the provincial auditor [lawsuits have been filed], and Saskatchewan people deserve answers.
What about privatization? It seems certain the government will move on liquor. Are you concerned about the Sask. Party using tough economic circumstances to justify a fire sale of public assets?
If the government wasn’t honest with Saskatchewan people, and if they think they’re going to have some sort of asset sale, we’ll be there to fight that every step of the way with the people of this province.
When Cam Broten was elected leader in 2011, I spoke with him about the challenge the NDP faced in rural Saskatchewan. He spoke optimistically about “listening and reconnecting” with rural voters. Judging by the results of this April’s election, though, that remains a challenge.
Part of it is just caring and showing up, and you can certainly count on us on that front. I won’t pretend that there’s simple work ahead for us, but it’s about being honest and serving the best interests of people and communities who care deeply about what’s happening in health care, education and our broken transportation system, both road and rail, that producers and businesses have to deal with. We’ll work to be an important voice on those issues.
During last fall’s federal election, it seemed that First Nations and Métis people were involved in the political process. I’m not sure that happened during the provincial election, so there would seem to be room for the NDP to engage with that community.
The relationship we have with First Nations and Métis people is incredibly important to us as a party and the future of Saskatchewan. That’s reflected in the appointment of Buckley Belanger as deputy leader. He’s the longest serving aboriginal MLA in Saskatchewan history and he has a lot to offer. Buckley will also take a lead role as First Nations and Métis critic with associate critics Warren McCall and Doyle Vermette to cover the entire province, both urban areas and on reserve, in recognition that we’re all treaty people. We’ll work to ensure we’re closing gaps in education funding and outcomes. We have a great injustice that stands today, and we need to do a much better job in providing the basic supports that strengthen communities and wake up to some of the totally unacceptable disparities in quality of life that exist for many First Nations and Métis people.
Are you happy with Brad Wall’s relationship with the federal government? As a self-appointed voice of conservatism, he’s done a fair bit of politicking against the Liberals. Could Saskatchewan’s interests be better served through less partisanship?
Saskatchewan people deserve a government that’s going to stand up for their interests and have an effective relationship with the federal government. Often, it seems, Premier Wall is distracted on this front, and sometimes grandstanding as opposed to rolling up his sleeves and getting the job done, which is what Saskatchewan people deserve. We’ll always be willing to stand up for Saskatchewan’s interests, but we’ll also work constructively with whatever federal government’s in power to ensure those interests are advanced.
At the federal NDP convention in Edmonton there was a lot of talk about the LEAP manifesto. Some of its principles related to energy and small scale agriculture will be tough sells in Saskatchewan. Yet at the same time, LEAP addresses issues that many current NDP supporters, and possible future supporters, feel strongly about. Where does your caucus stand?
We’re prairie progressives. We’re practical in nature, and we certainly support our energy sector and know we have to get our product to market in a safe and responsible way. That includes building new pipelines that are regulated well. But we have to do so much more in recognizing that climate change is real, and the reality is that we have a government that hasn’t acted in a meaningful way to address climate change, greenhouse gases and renewable energy.