There are many of you who may have a hard time remembering Saskatchewan Liberals — let alone what was once known in this province as the “Liberal L”.
Before successive failed provincial Liberal leaders that have included Ryan Bater, David Karwacki, Jim Melenchuk, Lynda Haverstock, Ralph Goodale, Ted Malone and Davey Steuart, there was a successful Liberal government.
It was elected 50 years ago under leader Ross Thatcher in the aftermath of the great Medicare fight and would serve two terms before losing power in 1971.
But even before that election 50 years that ended the 20-year run of the Tommy Douglas/Woodrow Lloyd administration, there was what was affectionately known as the “Liberal L”. It was the rural seats along the Alberta and U.S. borders dominated by Liberal candidates even at a time when the CCF-NDP was still very successful in rural Saskatchewan.
Of course, much has changed in the past 50 years … although maybe not everything. That Thatcher Liberal government is long gone and so are the Liberals — first, supplanted by Progressive Conservatives and now merged into the Saskatchewan Party.
But back then long before the second and even first federal Liberal leader named Trudeau, Liberals in Saskatchewan represented a very different brand of politics. It was a more right-wing brand inherited from its roots of Premiers Jimmy Gardiner and Walter Scott that so dominated the first 40 years of Saskatchewan politics.
These Liberals were perfectly comfortable in the oil-ranching-farming country along both borders. Even today, it is still considered the area of the province still considered today as the most right-wing and anti-NDP.
So what does this history lesson have to do with today’s politics, you may ask? Well, it actually has a lot to do with where we are at today.
It may be 50 years since that last Liberal government was first elected, but it’s also 50 years since the end of the Tommy Douglas era. In other words, the age of the CCF-NDP being the natural governing party of Saskatchewan is long over and has been over for some time.
Admittedly, we have had NDP governments in 27 of the last 50 years — largely due to the fall-out from the incompetence and corruption of the Grant Devine Progressive Conservatives and fact that the PCs and Liberals tended to split the right-of-centre vote prior to the arrival of the Saskatchewan Party.
But you look at Saskatchewan governance since the turn of the millennium and forward to the high likelihood of Premier Brad Wall’s government winning the next election, the tide has certainly shifted away from the NDP. As of the last election when the NDP struggled to win nine seats (none of which were in rural Saskatchewan), it no longer is much of a force in urban Saskatchewan today, either.
And if you have ever wondered when the tide really started to turn, look no further than that Thatcher election 50 years ago and the old Liberal L.
While the NDP certainly held strong under Allan Blakeney in the 1970s and the Roy Romanow/Lorne Calvert government of the 1990s, the area of resistance was always in that Liberal L.
It was in places like Weyburn in the 1970s where the resistance to NDP philosophy and policies took the form of the establishment of the Weyburn Inland Terminal — the first of its kind that was owned and operated by farmer shareholders.
It was the also in communities along both borders where the Romanow government’s closure of rural hospitals was most bitterly opposed. And it was in this area where we often saw the greatest opposition to the education taxes on farmland.
While that opposition to the NDP approach has now spread throughout rural Saskatchewan and even into the cities, it is important to note where it all started.
Murray Mandryk has been covering provincial politics for over 22 years.