If it were simply a matter of where a political party leader was from, election results would be a lot different, wouldn’t they?
Take the 2011 Saskatchewan provincial election in which the NDP were wiped off the map in rural Saskatchewan.
Then NDP leader Dwain Lingenfelter (a Shaunavon area farm boy who worked extensively in the oil sector after his first 20-year stint in politics) should have been able to relate to rural Saskatchewan as well or better than Saskatchewan Party leader Brad Wall.
Having grown up in Swift Current and as the son of a small businessman, Wall certainly had his own rural pedigree. But shouldn’t Dwain Lingenfelter have been able to relate to rural Saskatchewan at least as well as Brad Wall?
Of course, it doesn’t work that way and anyone with even the most rudimentary understanding of Saskatchewan politics knows why.
It has to do with the 30-plus year history of NDP government policies unpopular in rural Saskatchewan. In fact, not since the late the 1970s under Allan Blakeney have the NDP consistently won rural seats.
Yes, there was that brief period in the early the 1990s when rural voters — as frustrated with the incompetence and later-discovered corruption of the Grant Devine Progressive Conservatives — turned to Roy Romanow’s NDP like everyone else in the province. But the success of Romanow (as urban in nature as any political leaders Saskatchewan ever had) was fleeting at best.
In fact, it was the policies and choices of both the Blakeney and Romanow governments (Crown-owned resource companies; rural hospital closures, etc.) that drove rural voters away from the NDP. More free market oriented by nature, the rural Saskatchewan’s philosophical departure with the NDP has been decades in making.
And while Lorne Calvert (a Moose Jaw boy only slightly more rooted to the rural mindset than Blakeney and Romanow) did somehow manage to win an election relying only on the city vote, Lingenfelter had no such chance.
Even if Lingenfelter hadn’t abandoned his rural seat for the safety of inner city Regina two decades earlier, it would still have been impossible for him to make in-roads back into rural Saskatchewan. (And talking about hammering potash and oil companies with higher royalties was not helpful.)
Yet here we are in another NDP leadership and here we again see the NDP desperately trying to revive its rural roots that have long ago died.
Upon unveiling the 14 regional forum debates between next month and the March 9 NDP leadership vote, party organizers proudly announced nine of those forums would be outside Regina, Saskatoon, Moose Jaw and Prince Albert. (Those NDP forums include: Humboldt, Nov. 22; Swift Current, Nov. 29; Melfort, Dec. 1; Rosetown, Jan. 12; Weyburn, Jan. 19; North Battleford, Jan. 24,and; Yorkton, Jan. 31.)
It is a nice gesture, but it will surely take more than a few lip-service leadership debates in rural Saskatchewan — debates, aimed at the dwindling numbers of already committed NDP members, anyway — to win back the hearts and votes of rural voters.
For starters, the rumoured candidates in the NDP leadership like Cam Broten and Ryan Meili (Saskatoon)and Erin Weir and Trent Wotherspoon (Regina) all are based in the larger urban centres. (Although some of these candidates — like most everyone else from this province — do have some rural roots.)
Again, where you are from isn’t always the most critical issue in relating to rural voters. But not much of what we are hearing from today’s NDP is piquing the interests of rural voters.
And the cold, hard reality of this is whoever assumes the NDP mantel will inherit this 30-plus-year NDP legacy of Saskatchewan New Democrats not being in tune with the rural vote.
Little so far indicates that this will change any time soon.
Murray Mandryk has been covering provincial politics for over 15 years.