If an orange wave has indeed hit Canadian politics this year, voters in Saskatchewan aren’t buying it – handing Premier Brad Wall a landslide, record-setting majority at the expense of the once-thriving NDP.
Mr. Wall's right-leaning Saskatchewan Party won 49 of 58 ridings Monday evening in a race that was never in doubt. The SaskParty easily broke the province’s record by claiming 64 per cent of the popular vote, and one network called the majority win just 25 minutes after polls closed.
The NDP, meanwhile, was reduced to historic lows – tying its low for seats, with nine, and setting a new low with 32 per cent of the popular vote.
"The province has been waiting for this for a while," Mr. Wall said as he took the stage in his hometown of Swift Current, where about a hundred supporters gathered with party staff to celebrate the win.
“Our province has waited a long time, but today Saskatchewan is becoming what it might have been, what it should have been, what it was meant to be – and we’re not going back.”
His win was expected, but even SaskParty internal polls hadn’t projected the landslide produced Monday. Among the New Democratic stalwarts to lose their seat was party leader Dwain Lingenfelter, who resigned his position less than two hours after polls closed.
"Obviously as leader, when you don't succeed, that's my responsibility and I take full responsibility for that," Mr. Lingenfelter told reporters. "Part of the problem isn't what went wrong but the fact that Brad Wall is a very popular leader [and]the economy is moving along very well.”
Mr. Wall has presided over a boom in the province, which is one of two in Canada with a balanced budget, so he entered the fixed-date election with a nearly insurmountable lead. Part of that is luck, he says.
“First of all, we always acknowledge we were the benefactors of good timing. We had some good luck in government and I think it’s important for people to hear politicians say that’s the case,” he said Monday. “Now, I hope we took advantage of the good timing.”
Married with three children, Mr. Wall was first elected premier in 2007. He’s a conservative with close ties to Stephen Harper’s federal government, but is unafraid to speak out – as he did in the fight over the fate of Potash Corp., during which he pushed for Ottawa to block a hostile takeover bid. Ultimately, it did.
Over his next four years, Mr. Wall will likely figure prominently once again. He’ll play a role as the province’s energy and mining sectors continue to boom – rival bids for uranium company Hathor Exploration Ltd. are the latest example, and may once again stir a debate over federal rules on foreign ownership. After striking a nationalist defence of Potash Corp., he wants uranium investment rules loosened.
Mr. Wall will also have to fight for his province’s share as a federal deal on health transfers expires – in the last deal, wealthy provinces agreed to a lesser cut. “We’re hoping that first of all the government will keep its promise of 6 per cent funding [increases]on health transfers, number one. Number two, we’re hoping the government will recognize innovation,” he said, a reference to his province’s forays into privately provided public health care.
Mr. Wall said he indeed plans to be a vocal advocate for his province. “I don’t know if it’s going to be stronger or weaker [than before]– we’re just going to state our case,” he said.
Mr. Wall's party had 38 of the province’s 58 seats when the writ dropped, and entered the vote on Monday with a wide lead. It snowed across much of Saskatchewan, with icy conditions reported on voting day, but neither party expected the weather to make a difference. Voter turnout – 395,309 – was down from 2007. The Green Party came in third, with 3 per cent of the vote. The Liberals and Progressive Conservatives combined for 1 per cent. Many one-time Tories now form the SaskParty.
Mr. Wall’s win made him the fifth Canadian premier to succeed in a re-election bid this fall.
In Regina, meanwhile, Mr. Lingenfelter reached out to supporters to continue building the party. He recalled the election loss of 1982, when the NDP was reduced to nine seats in the province where Tommy Douglas built the party's brand. New Democrats won government again nine years later. Their slate Monday was diverse and included many young candidates and 11 aboriginal candidates.
"I remember people predicting that was the end of the New Democratic Party," Mr. Lingenfelter said, later adding: "We have a group of MLAs who are going to turn this province upside down over the next four years – with your help."
The crux of the SaskParty campaign was to go after Mr. Lingenfelter personally. They unleashed a series of attack ads casting him as an agent of an unpopular former NDP government, a free spender and a political leader prone to regular flip-flops. "The attack ads obviously worked," said David McGrane, a political scientist at the University of Saskatchewan.
With 64 per cent of votes, Mr. Wall’s party shattered the province’s previous record of 57 per cent, set by the Liberals in 1912. The NDP held power from 1991 to 2007, and never earned more than 51 per cent.
Dating back to 1938, when it was known as the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the NDP has never held fewer than nine seats, a mark set in 1982. The party matched that Monday.
Since its first election rebranded as the NDP, in 1967, the NDP had never earned less than 37 per cent of the provincial vote. On Monday, it garnered 32 per cent.
A pillar of the NDP campaign was to raise the royalty rate on potash, which has become one of the province's most prominent industries as its sales price has soared. The party proposed doubling the rate and using the additional cash to pay for a series of social programs.
The SaskParty framed that as an attack on business at a time when the economy is booming, but the NDP didn't back down from the idea, one it acknowledges was unpopular with some.
"Some of this stuff was a little more difficult to sell. Some of the items in our platform aren’t politically friendly," NDP spokeswoman Erin Morrison said. "But, honestly, it’s the right thing to do."
Mr. Wall’s SaskParty, meanwhile, made few spending promises during the campaign, even as the province continues to generate surpluses. Its first acts will include extending a provincial sales-tax exemption on children’s clothes while expanding funding for insulin pumps.
“We’ve worked hard to be a government that did what it said it would do. We have a platform, we’ve campaigned on it and we’re going to do the things that are in that platform,” Mr. Wall said Monday evening.
Despite its boom, Saskatchewan still spends as if it were a have-not province, ranking near the bottom of the pack in social-services funding. Mr. Wall acknowledged there is work to do in improving health care and social services, but said his government would rather be overly cautious than spend too quickly.
“[Voters]want to make sure we’re cautious about the future. The worldwide economy is not a stable thing right now. We can’t be overspending,” he said. “We’ve got to make sure that we’re fiscally responsible and I think that’s a powerful message from the campaign as well.”
The NDP platform addressed what the party saw as a need for more social support. Voters, however, appeared to prefer the austere government of Mr. Wall – what Prof. McGrane called his “cheapskate” platform."
"People are cynical. They're not looking for big promises," Prof. McGrane said. "Brad Wall really hugs the centre as a premier."
The landslide came as little surprise in snow-covered Swift Current. When the CBC called the election for Mr. Wall, few of his supporters noticed. When Mr. Wall arrived, however, they erupted in cheers.
“We kind of expected this, so it’s not a huge surprise to us local guys at home,” said Steve Cassidy, 50, an electrical contractor who has known Mr. Wall for 25 years. Even then, it was clear politics was in Mr. Wall’s blood. “You know, Brad was a great speaker even at a young age, so you kind of thought this was in the cards for him.”