The far wall in Roy Romanow's office in Saskatoon is dominated by a large portrait of the four CCF/NDP premiers who have governed Saskatchewan -- Tommy Douglas, Woodrow Lloyd, Allan Blakeney and Mr. Romanow himself. Whenever he turns to use the phone on the right side of his desk, Mr. Romanow can't avoid laying eyes on his Prairie socialist forebears.
The Premier has always felt the weight of their gaze on him as well. He often recounts how, as a law student in Saskatoon during the 1962 doctors strike, he left his summer job, jumped into his friend's Volkswagen and drove to Regina to do battle. He ferried around Mr. Douglas and carried Mr. Blakeney's bags. Within five years, the young volunteer had won election to the legislature. Within a decade, he was serving as attorney-general. In 1991, he became Premier and, in the conservative spirit of Prairie socialism, wrestled Saskatchewan back from the fiscal precipice.
His entire adulthood has been lived within this single political household. This personal history explains why Mr. Romanow, in announcing his resignation yesterday as Premier, rebuffed the continued overtures from Prime Minister Jean Chrétien to run for the Liberals in the coming federal election. He is a young 61, and certainly would have coveted an opportunity to serve in the national government as minister of health. But, as he stated with great emotion yesterday about his political family: "I could never turn my back on those people. Never." Turning his back on those people would have amounted to one of the greatest acts of treachery in Canadian political history. His defection could have ignited internecine warfare in the New Democratic Party between those most keen to keep away from the deadly embrace of the Liberals and those moved to stop Stockwell Day at any price.
There was another good reason not to run. He couldn't be sure of winning, even in his hometown of Saskatoon. The Chrétien Liberals bagged two Saskatoon seats in their 1993 election, then promptly lost them in 1997. Their standing continues to deteriorate. The Saskatoon ridings fan out into the countryside, where the Liberals have been universally condemned for their handling of the farm crisis. In a federal by-election in Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar last year, the governing party could muster only 15.6 per cent of the vote, barely edging out the Tories for third place.
Mr. Romanow's popularity might have carried the day. Then again, his perfidy might have cost him dearly. A student of his party's history, he will remember how CCFers ganged up on a previous party turncoat, Hazen Argue, when he jumped to the Liberals, going so far as to vote en masse for the Tories and excising his photo from party headquarters. Mr. Romanow will also recall that Saskatchewan voters defeated even the venerated Mr. Douglas after he resigned as premier in 1961 to lead the federal NDP.
For his part, Mr. Chrétien has spared no effort to land his old constitutional buddy. The Saskatchewan Premier has been lobbying for months to head up some form of national commission on medicare with a mandate to equip the public health-care system for the challenges of new medical technologies and an aging population. But Mr. Chrétien has so far resisted, continually turning the tables on his friend and pressing him to run federally instead.
Mr. Romanow was, at some levels, sorely tempted. He has come to believe that the country is splitting into two ideological camps. In one camp are those who believe in a shrunken federal government and, to his mind, privatized medicare. He resides, along with Mr. Chrétien, in the other.
To have seen Mr. Romanow, lips drawn tight and eyes blazing with anger, in the moments after the first ministers meeting on health earlier this month was to understand his hostility to the kind of Canada he believes Ontario Premier Mike Harris and the Alliance's Mr. Day represent. Later that evening, Mr. Romanow dined at 24 Sussex Dr. with Mr. Chrétien and Newfoundland's Brian Tobin. One can only imagine how the Prime Minister, who has a great political interest in drawing New Democrats into a holy crusade against the Day-Harris axis, employed the day's events in his sales pitch. "I think Romanow was quite tortured," said one source close to the action.
But the Prime Minister couldn't close the sale. Mr. Romanow returned home to contemplate his future under the watchful eyes of his cherished predecessors. The only question remaining is whether, perhaps after the next election (assuming the proponents of his view of Canada triumph), he will be granted the consolation prize of his national medicare commission.