Art Lalonde is a third-generation Saskatchewan farmer who was, for ages, as predictable as they come at election time.
He always voted as a conservative. Four years ago, his ballot was among those that lifted Brad Wall’s right-leaning Saskatchewan Party to power, unseating a New Democrat premier. However, as the province heads once again to the polls, Mr. Lalonde is planning to vote NDP.
“I kind of believe in everything Brad Wall and Stephen Harper are pushing for,” Mr. Lalonde, 48, says. “Except for the Wheat Board.”
Mr. Wall’s support of Mr. Harper’s plan to do away with the Canadian Wheat Board’s monopoly on grain sales cuts to the core of the Saskatchewan Party’s rural base. In the province where NDP icon Tommy Douglas made his name, many rural voters are wheat board supporters. A majority of farmers voted to keep the monopoly in a summer plebiscite, but that hasn’t deterred Mr. Harper. An end to the CWB monopoly will, de facto, kill the board altogether, many farmers warn.
Mr. Wall, the bespectacled, outspoken premier from tiny Swift Current, Sask., is still expected to cruise to a landslide majority in Monday’s fixed-date election, with one poll showing him with a 40-point lead on his nearest rival, the NDP. The province’s economy is booming, as is his own popularity – boosted in part by his high-profile battle against a hostile takeover of Potash Corp.
“Brad Wall goes and fights for Potash Corp., but he doesn’t fight for the wheat board,” says Mr. Lalonde, whose grandfather homesteaded what is now the 2,300-acre family farm in 1912 and who supports the CWB monopoly. “Whatever your political stripes, I don’t know why you’d change the wheat board.”
Defections such as his aren’t expected to have much of an impact Monday, however, in part because NDP leader Dwain Lingenfelter has waffled on his own stance – he supports the CWB monopoly now, but is said to have pushed for its demise while working in the private sector. Mr. Wall’s party also tends to run up overwhelming wins in rural areas.
“I don’t know if it will cost them seats. I know it will cost them votes,” said Cam Goff, another Saskatchewan farmer and CWB director.
The CWB’s fate is one of the few contentious issues of what has otherwise been a lacklustre campaign. The Saskatchewan Party entered with a lead and ran a series of character attack ads aimed squarely at Mr. Lingenfelter (the NDP, determined to stay positive, hardly responded, which one political scientist says was an error). Now, a landslide is within reach.
“We’re optimistic about [the campaign] but we’re cautiously optimistic,” said Bill Boyd, a Saskatchewan Party campaign co-chair who is also a cabinet minister. “We would never count out the NDP. They are the natural governing party in Saskatchewan.”
In hopes of achieving the unlikely and unseating Mr. Wall, Mr. Lingenfelter’s NDP have pitched a series of increases in social program spending while developing an online calculator that allows voters to see how the changes would affect their own bottom line. For instance, they’d bring in rent control at a time when home and apartment rental rates are soaring.
To pay for the programs, the NDP are proposing doubling the royalty rate on potash, a key provincial industry. The royalties currently yield three per cent of the provincial budget, and the current rate was set at a time when notoriously volatile potash prices were much lower.
“The royalties on potash are in desperate need of being reviewed and moved upwards,” NDP campaign manager Dale Schmeichel said.
Mr. Wall’s party refutes this, as does the head of the economics department at the University of Saskatchewan, who believes a royalty hike (to 10 cents per dollar of revenue) would scare away some investment. “Oh, yes, it would and it would be a blow,” professor Don Gilchrist said. “I think the general status is: Don’t rock the boat.”
However, a local poll shows twice as many voters support a potash royalty review as oppose it. As such, even with a win, Mr. Wall may face pressure from voters to look at changing the royalty regime, something Mr. Boyd dismissed. “That [industry]has insulated our economy, I believe, in Saskatchewan from a lot of the problems being faced in other economies in Canada and around the world,” he said.
There are, however, few other issues at play. Mr. Wall entered the race on a high note with a nearly insurmountable lead, said Joe Garcea, a political scientist and professor at the University of Saskatchewan. As such, no issue has stirred much controversy.
“This is an election about everything and nothing,” he said.