Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Saskatchewan NDP Year in Review 2009: Pushback

As I discussed in an earlier post, the federal NDP's 2009 was marked by incremental progress toward a long-standing plan. In contrast, the year in Saskatchewan's NDP involved major decisions as to the party's direction. But while there are plenty of questions left to be answered over the next two years, we did see one key shift in Saskatchewan's political scene which will make tracing a path to government in 2011 far less problematic that it might otherwise have been.

Needless to say, the first six months of the year were dominated by the party's leadership race which culminated in Dwain Lingenfelter's second-ballot victory over Ryan Meili. What began as a seeming romp for Lingenfelter turned into a dramatic finish, as longtime stalwart Lingenfelter, faced with the membership sale controversy, was just barely able to hold off the combined efforts of a strong MLA competitor in Deb Higgins and two of the party's rising stars in Meili and Yens Pedersen.

But perhaps even more important than the candidates themselves was the range of supporters brought into the race - with Lingenfelter mixing plenty of new names and faces into a base of bedrock support dating back decades, while Meili and Pedersen put together new campaign teams which surprised many with their enthusiasm and effectiveness. Which leads to the question of how best to keep all of the key leadership race participants inside the NDP's tent and engaged in the party leading up to 2011.

So far, the best prospect for continued renewal looks to be a policy development process which Lingenfelter is rightly playing up as setting the NDP's direction for some time to come. There's some obvious room for improvement in the amount of public discussion about the process so far, but once consultations begin in earnest there will be a golden opportunity not only to set the NDP's policy direction, but also to build up a new set of NDP voices for the future to join Meili, Pedersen and newly-elected MLA Danielle Chartier. The latter goal may require some concerted effort to place a focus on the grassroots rather than the current leader or caucus, but such an effort would figure to be well rewarded in the end.

Meanwhile, Lingenfelter's main appeal as a leader always figured to be his ability to turn the tables on a government which had emerged almost entirely unscathed from its first two years in office (thanks to fawning media coverage as well as a lack of consistent NDP messages to define him). And with an assist to the NDP's prescient warnings about overreliance on potash revenues, the first half-year of Lingenfelter's leadership has undoubtedly seen the end of any free ride for Brad Wall.

Mind you, the concern hasn't yet filtered down to as much of the general public as one would like to see (nor up to the national media). But commentary on Saskatchewan politics in the latter half of the year rightly focused largely on the Sask Party's mismanagement in 2009 and difficult decisions to be made in 2010. And with cities, school boards and others who will be affected by cuts to anticipated funding starting to speak out, it doesn't figure to take long before Wall's habit of promising the moon sets up a significant opening for a government which is better grounded in reality.

It does remain to be seen exactly what alternative vision the Saskatchewan NDP will put forward in 2010 and beyond. But the combination of NDP renewal and Sask Party tarnish should significantly narrow any gap in the polls just in time for it to matter - meaning that whatever the NDP comes up with in its policy process should have a significant chance of setting the province's agenda within the next two years.

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