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Opinion: A few words on the NDP leadership race

John Cairns’ News Watch: Another NDP leadership vote takes place this weekend.
Leadership forum 1
NDP leadership candidates Carla Beck and Kaitlyn Harvey.

REGINA — This week marks the conclusion of the NDP provincial leadership race in Saskatchewan — or more accurately, the latest NDP leadership race in Saskatchewan.

This Sunday, June 26, marks the announcement of the new leader at the Delta Regina leadership event. What they really ought to do is get the announcement over with quickly, so that they can all get on with summer like the rest of us.

I’d like to hype up this vote as the culmination of an exciting leadership race, but I can’t. The reality is that this race looks one-sided. 

All signs are pointing to Carla Beck, the MLA for Regina Lakeview, winning the leadership over Kaitlyn Harvey, the Métis lawyer and one-time candidate from Saskatoon. 

Beck is the frontrunner in all the areas that matter short of the actual vote. Beck leads in fundraising by something like a five-to-one margin, according to financials filed with the party, which is an enormous lead. Beck leads in caucus and other prominent endorsements. She is clearly the best organized, and was first out of the gate when the campaign began. 

The clearest sign Beck is going to win is the fact that, ahem, the Sask. Party is continually attacking her. During the previous session, Sask. Party cabinet ministers would get up in Question Period and dredge up some quote from Beck about something or other, and use it against the opposition. That shows me the government knows who their biggest threat is.

The winner is going to be the first female NDP leader in Saskatchewan. It should be noted she will not be the first female Opposition leader — Lynda Haverstock had that honour leading the Liberals for a period of time, and then the NDP’s Nicole Sarauer was Opposition leader briefly when she was interim leader. But this will be the first permanent NDP leader to be a woman, which will be historic.

You would think that for such a monumental occasion this leadership race would have been more exciting than it is, but it really hasn’t. There just hasn’t been a lot of excitement and not a whole lot of vitriol to be honest, at least until recently. 

I know some other media organizations have lately been trying to play up “divisions in the NDP” and tensions between the candidates. There was one story where Harvey was quoted as accusing the party establishment of wanting Beck in and current leader Ryan Meili gone.

My take of this is a far less dramatic one. Harvey is losing and she knows it, and now she is airing out her frustrations about it. That’s all this is, and we’ll see if I’m right when the results come in Sunday.

As for accusations about the establishment trying to get rid of Meili, let’s get real about a few things. First, Meili isn’t leaving due to the party brass throwing him out. I’m sure not everyone was thrilled with him and I'm not privy to all the behind-the-scenes stuff, but his leadership was reaffirmed with a 72 per cent vote last fall — not fabulous, but good enough for him to stay. 

There have also not been obvious or well-publicized moves afoot to get rid of him. It’s very different from what’s going on with the federal Conservatives, where you had people like Senator Denise Batters publicly stabbing the leader Erin O’Toole in the back and candidates actively waiting in the wings. It’s the same thing in Alberta with so many potential candidates undermining Premier Jason Kenney for the United Conservative Party leadership and succeeding in getting him to resign. 

For a while, the pandemic was actually a selling point to keeping the physician, Dr. Meili, around as NDP leader. In 2021, it seemed the party was getting some traction versus the Sask. Party over government handling of COVID-19 restrictions.

The NDP were constantly hammering the government for not doing enough in terms of mandates, for caving in to groups like the Unified Grassroots, for having the worst health care response, the worst school response, the worst death rates, the worst this, the worst that. 

Meili had found his issue. The problem was Saskatchewan people were exhausted. They didn’t want more restrictions, and didn’t like the NDP’s consistently negative and pro-lockdown message.

Then came the Athabasca byelection, which was the moment of truth. Losing to the Sask. Party in a longstanding bedrock NDP seat was a jolt to the entire party. That result sent the NDP right back where they were after the 2020 election: on the road to nowhere. Meili resigned soon after.

So, we have a situation where nobody was expecting a leadership race so soon, and a party that is still in a state of shock after the byelection loss. That probably explains the muted atmosphere we have seen, and why we haven’t seen more leadership forums or organized events like in the past. 

We also have had a shortage of leadership contenders, mainly because many other big names that were talked about had either run for leader before, or before that.

Let’s now get serious about the real elephant in the room. This party is sick and tired of staging leadership races.

The real issue, one the Sask. Party has liked to point out repeatedly, has been a revolving door at the top of the NDP. For years, there was stability. You had Tommy Douglas, Woodrow Lloyd, Allan Blakeney, Roy Romanow and then Lorne Calvert, and all of them were there for years fighting multiple elections.

After Calvert lost to Brad Wall, the revolving door started. First in 2009 came Dwain Lingenfelter, who then lost his own seat in the disastrous 2011 election.

Afterwards in 2013, Cam Broten won the leadership by 44 votes over Meili. Then came the 2016 election, and Broten lost his seat. This was getting to be a trend.

By 2020, Meili had finally taken over and even kept his seat, for a change. But that eventually became yet another NDP one-and-done. 

I am not even counting the multitude of interim leaders this party has had since 2009: Nicole Sarauer, Trent Wotherspoon, John Nilson, you name it. The turnover is clearly an issue. They desperately need to develop stability at the top — stability in terms of direction, stability in terms of name recognition. 

The NDP has to realize getting back into power is a job that isn’t going to be accomplished in one election. This party has major problems outside the big cities: in rural Saskatchewan the NDP are largely out of the running before the election is even called. 

Their biggest problem is that the Sask. Party isn’t really even running against the NDP anymore. Instead, Scott Moe is directing his fire against the unpopular Justin Trudeau and blaming the feds for everything wrong in Saskatchewan, saying a vote for the NDP is a vote for the Liberals. 

At the very least, the provincial NDP needs Trudeau gone, and quite possibly the entire federal Liberal government, too, to have any shot of winning a provincial election.

More than likely, they also need a complete implosion of the Sask. Party. But even with the emergence of upstarts like the Sask. United Party, which could split the “free enterprise” vote, that won’t happen overnight.

My guess is that whoever wins, Beck or Harvey, this leadership race will probably be the last one for the NDP for a while. They know they need stability at the top, and they have a lot of work to do. The NDP might as well get on with it.