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Urban-rural split is there for all to see after by-elections

John Cairns’ News Watch: By-election results might be the wake-up call the Sask Party needs in plenty of time for the 2024 election.
The by-election results, and the urban-rural results that followed, should be a wake up call for the Moe government.

REGINA - Unlike the other pundits out there who are going to do the usual over-analysis of the results three provincial by-elections — which saw the NDP steal away two urban seats from the Sask Party while the Sask United Party pulled out a second place showing in the rural seat — and about what it might mean for the next election, I feel the need to remind everyone of a few things. 

Such as: it’s summer.

The timing of the Aug. 10 by-elections hit in the middle of the one time of year when, quite frankly, nobody cares about politics. People were more interested in the Saskatchewan Roughriders, or the Craven Country Thunder! Or they were more interested in going to the latest Barbie movie or getting their hands on Taylor Swift tickets. Many were taking summer vacations and were headed to the lake or even out of the province on road trips. For these folks, politics was definitely not top of mind. 

In fact, immediately after the three by-elections were called, even I left for B.C. on vacation for two weeks. It's telling when even the Glacier Media resident political reporter has tuned out of politics, and at the end of the day, that really is my main point about these by-elections. The ordinary people didn't care.

But there were enough people who did care. They consisted of the usual overly-enthusiastic people who are too into politics -- on all sides of the political spectrum -- and an electorate largely consisting of the upset and discontented. 

That, in a nutshell, explains what went down in Coronation Park, Walsh Acres, and Lumsden-Morse. The discontented people showed up, enthusiastic about the opportunity to blow off some steam at the polls on all sorts of issues such as health care, the schools, the cost of living, you name it.

In Regina, those folks voted for the NDP. In Lumsden-Morse, they also voted for the Saskatchewan United Party. And the people who were satisfied with their lives in general, people who might ordinarily vote for the Sask Party, weren't inspired enough by what they were seeing to interrupt their vacations.

What I am really saying is that in a general election situation a lot more people are going to be more motivated to get out and vote, just to save the government. Much more is going to be on the line. At least, the Sask Party better hope this is the case.

No doubt the Sask Party figured these by-elections would be a flop for them, scheduling them in August during the exact time of year when nobody cares. It didn’t help matters that previous MLA Mark Docherty went on a political podcast and said something, more or less, to the effect that he couldn't point to one thing the government had done for his riding.

It also didn't help that the Sask Party allowed the NDP to run wild and go basically unchallenged during the campaign. The NDP held one media conference after another day after day, attacking the government on power rates, blasting them over tax increases, and accusing them of doing nothing about affordability. Never mind the $500 cheques Premier Scott Moe had sent out to people last fall.

While that was going on, the Sask United Party was busy holding town hall meetings in rural Saskatchewan and raising heck on social media about Planned Parenthood.

What was most interesting from the results was the clear divide that we saw at the polls last Thursday. The first thing that comes to mind is that the urban-rural split is back.

Remember that? It was the phenomenon in the late 90s and into the 2000s in Saskatchewan provincial politics where the rural ridings in Saskatchewan would mostly go to the Sask Party, while the urban ridings would mostly go NDP. Eventually, under Brad Wall, the Sask Party was able to break through and take a huge chunk of urban seats from the NDP. 

But the two urban wins by the NDP last Thursday, coupled with the Sask Party hold on Lumsden-Morse, point to a reversal back to the old pattern if the Sask Party isn’t careful.

What you need to know about the situation in 2023 is this urban-rural split is not so much based on how these by-elections turned out in terms of votes. Rather, it’s based on a real emerging divide in the issues and real life experiences of the people who live in rural and urban areas. 

Life’s different in these places, folks. One thing I have personally seen since moving to Regina is a sea-change of difference in attitudes on the types of issues that people are excited about. 

In the northwest, people were worried about the carbon tax and the impact of Trudeau government policies on their farming and oil and gas operations, and worried about criminals running rampant on their property and about their own guns being confiscated away by the government.

If you look at the last several months Premier Moe’s main messaging has concentrated largely on addressing exactly these worries: a Throne Speech focused on public safety with plans for a Saskatchewan Marshals Service; bringing in the Saskatchewan Firearms Act; unveiling policies such as the Saskatchewan First Act and stating the province's opposition to the federal Clean Energy Regulations. And of course, Moe is opposing the Carbon Tax every opportunity he gets.

These are the types of signature Sask Party policies that will play well in Lloydminster and Estevan, and in all the rural areas in between. But there are two places in particular that look at this and feel a little left out: Saskatoon and Regina.

It's not as pronounced in Saskatoon where a lot of people who work in the energy and mining sectors are more likely to buy what the Sask Party is selling. Regina is a different world. There are people here who couldn't care less about gun ownership or the Saskatchewan First Act or any of these other things the Sask Party are talking about. They want some action on other things.

Here, rents and mortgages are soaring, and gas prices are through the roof, and in a blue-collar, government town like Regina everyone is feeling the pinch. What’s more, the “record population growth” the Sask Party likes to brag about is resulting in issues such as overcrowded schools in Harbour Landing and hospitals being stressed to the limit. As a result, folks are angry that the announced or re-announced new schools aren't yet ready and that not enough new health workers have shown up.

What’s more, Regina is seeing very visible problems with poverty, addictions issues, mental health issues, and housing, especially the homeless issue. It could not have helped the Sask Party that the biggest news story during the by-election campaign was about the homeless encampment that got cleared off of the grounds of Regina City Hall. All that did was remind everyone of the mounting problems that aren't getting addressed in Regina.

The New Democrats have been visible talking about this stuff over the last year while the Sask Party has been mainly focused on the Carbon Tax and other topics. The Sask Party can't allow the NDP to hog the stage on urban issues. If the Sask Party wants to avoid seeing the by-election carnage that took place in Coronation Park and Walsh Acres replicate itself in more urban ridings, they are going to have to make a priority out of what is happening in the cities.

The government needs to come up with a coherent plan to address housing and social issues (ie. the SIS program), and seriously address affordability issues. The Sask Party needs to seriously look to cut taxes — not just the PST, but even suspend the gas tax. People are looking at Alberta and wondering why the prices there are a lot lower than Saskatchewan, thanks to the gas tax being suspended and the lack of a PST there.

Perhaps the by-election results are the wake-up call the Sask Party needed to focus on these urban issues. One thing is obvious from these results — voters aren’t giving the government any credit for running a $1 billion surplus, or for using that surplus money to pay down the debt. The Sask Party needs to focus on housing and affordability relief. If they do that, maybe that will inspire their own voters in urban areas to show up at the polls instead of stay home.

The harder part is going to be how to deal with the Saskatchewan United Party after their performance in Lumsden-Morse.

Previously, when the Sask Party were challenged by the upstart Buffalo Party, they responded by going on a tour of the province and they brought in the Saskatchewan First Act, and in doing so undercut the Buffalo Party and all of what they stood for, and headed off that particular vote-splitting threat. 

Dealing with the Sask United Party is different. Among other things, the SUP voters seem especially interested in exactly the sort of hot-button social issues that have gotten other centre right parties in this country booted from power.

The hottest topic in the Lumsden-Morse by-election was that incident in Lumsden high school when Planned Parenthood showed up with a bunch of sexually-explicit and inappropriate cards on a table for Grade 9 students to pick up. The Sask United Party ran away with this issue, calling for Planned Parenthood to be permanently banned and hammering the Sask Party government for allowing that incident to happen. 

So now the Sask Party, who are already under fire from the left for suspending Planned Parenthood already, is now under pressure from rural voters on the right wanting an even stronger stance. For their part, the government is promising further action so such an incident never happens again. But if they focus too much on this issue, they risk turning off urban voters who are saying the Sask Party “acted too quickly” against Planned Parenthood. And let's not even get started on the issue of "vaccine mandates," either.

The urban-rural split is wide open. That’s plain to see from these by-election results.

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