Paper presented at the Learned Socities
April 15, 2000
Saskatchewan is the home province of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and the New Democratic Party (NDP). It is the only place in North American which has a tradition of electing social democratic governments. Since 1944 the CCF-NDP has been the natural governing party of the province, with a solid base of 40 percent of the electorate. For many years the Saskatchewan section of the CCF and the NDP was the most left-wing section of those parties. Why is it then the case that members of the left in Saskatchewan launched the New Green Alliance in 1998?
CCF and NDP were the voice of the people
After the CCF came to office in 1944, people saw the CCF and its successor the NDP as the primary vehicle for advancing social change. Most progressive people and political activists joined the party and worked through the policy formation structure. The business community was tied to the Liberal Party and then the Conservative Party of Grant Devine. The major social, community and popular groups in the province had close ties to the party, primarily through ties of individual membership. When the CCF-NDP was in office, progressive activists found good jobs in the state structure.
But even groups closely associated with the NDP have maintained some structures independent of the dominant party. For many years the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour, the Saskatchewan Farmers Union, and the Saskatchewan Teachers Federation met regularly to discuss how to promote a progressive political agenda.
In the 1960s and 1970s, political action outside the NDP expanded. Aboriginal groups began to be more active. The peace and student movements grew. The anti-Vietnam war movement became very active. And on the more socialist left, there was the formation of the Committee for a Socialist Movement. The progressive left in Saskatchewan was quick to join the Waffle movement in 1968. While a part of the NDP, the Waffle had its own structure which was independent of the party. It's demand for an independent socialist Canada had a major impact on politics in Saskatchewan.
The CCF governed Saskatchewan between 1944 and 1964. The Liberal Party took office in 1964. Because of the polarization in Saskatchewan politics after 1944, the opposition Liberal Party was to the political right of the federal Liberal Party. While Premier Ross Thatcher and his colleagues used all the rhetoric of the free market political right, the government did not dismantle the social democratic welfare state created by the CCF-NDP.
The Waffle and the Blakeney government
Within the NDP, the Waffle was having a major impact. The policies adopted by the party represented a strong move to the left, and this was reflected in the 1971 campaign platform, "A New Deal for People." In the campaign for the new leader of the Party, Don Mitchell, the Waffle candidate, obtained 25 percent of the vote, and Allan Blakeney, the centrist candidate, was the compromise victor. Roy Romanow was the candidate for the party's right wing.
In March 1982 Allan Blakeney forced striking hospital workers back to work and the next day called a provincial election. The Tories under Grant Devine got 54 percent of the vote and 57 of the 64 seats in what is referred to as "the Monday night massacre." Blakeney's campaign literature proudly cited supporting editorials from the Globe and Mail. The day after the massacre, he told reporters that the party had failed because it had not effectively communicated its record to the electorate. There was no analysis of why the party grass roots either voted for the Tories or stayed home. (For this period, see Biggs and Stobbe, 1991; Pitsula and Rasmussen, 1990)
But the party itself did take some action. In 1984 they created a series of task forces on key issues and held hearings throughout the province. Reports from these meetings were to form the basis for party policy in the next election. The hearings were well attended, and the reports offered a new direction. But the party hierarchy crushed this effort. The election planning committee for the 1986 election revised the reports, and the meat of the recommendations was eliminated. Instead, in 1986 the leadership of the NDP chose to follow the Tories and try to buy votes by promising more hand outs to the middle class and small business. The key issues outlined in the panel reports, welfare rates and the minimum wage, the environment, women's rights, northern development, native rights, and trade union rights, were ignored.
The popular disgust with the Tory government did not result in a victory for the NDP. While they won slightly more votes than the Tories, the NDP won only two seats in the rural areas and 25 seats overall. The Tories won by coming up with $2.4 billion in federal and provincial assistance to farmers, about $36,000 per farmer. The NDP's argument was that the Tories had not come up with enough! They were even unwilling to oppose the acreage based distribution system which gave most of the subsidy to the biggest farmers. (See Briarpatch Magazine, November 1986)
The Saskatchewan Coalition for Social Justice
The general consensus on the progressive left was that the NDP lost the election because the party no longer had any vision. As Grant Devine's Tory government began to attack the welfare state and support free trade, the free market, deregulation and privatization, the Blakeney-led NDP was content to argue in the legislature and try to defend the status quo. Everyone knew that the NDP would now seek a new leader, and the heir apparent was Roy Romanow. Romanow had always represented the right-wing in the party. He was widely known to be a back room boy who distrusted the rank and file party members and their policies. He was also a parliamentarian and did not believe in extra-parliamentary policies.
In June 1987 the SFL and a wide range of popular groups mobilized a mass march and demonstration against the Tory government. The focus was on the cuts in spending and social programs, anti-labour legislation, free trade and privatization. 7,000 marched in the biggest demonstration in Saskatchewan history. On October 17, the groups met in Regina to form the Saskatchewan Coalition for Social Justice. The founding Peoples Convention was set for Saskatoon in March 1988. (The best study of this development to date is Somers, 1988)
The SCSJ carried out many demonstrations and actions during the remainder of the Tory government. They affiliated with the Pro-Canada Network and strongly opposed the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement in 1988. When the provincial election was called for October 1991, the SCSJ worked hard to elect the NDP government of Roy Romanow.
While the SCSJ voted overwhelmingly at its last People's Congress to continue to work for its political agenda after the 1991 election, with an NDP government in office, this did not happen. Too many of the affiliated groups had close ties with the NDP and were unwilling to support any extra-parliamentary actions, no matter how right wing the NDP policies. The SCSJ was heavily dependent on the SFL for financial and in kind support. While this support was there when there was a Tory government, it was not there for opposition to an NDP government. (See Brown et al, 1999)
Most of the political activists who worked with the SCSJ were frustrated by coalition politics. First, the SCSJ was a federation of groups linked at the top. Those groups made very little contribution to the SCSJ. There was no attempt to make the SCSJ a key part of the political strategy of the member groups. There was little attempt to mobilize their own membership in support of coalition work. As a result, political action was dependent on the work of a core group of political activists. For major demonstrations, only the SFL really tried to mobilize their membership. But if local labour leaders did not endorse and join with the SFL, then the turn out was relatively small. Many of the trade unions whose primary allegiance was to the NDP were highly suspicious of the SCSJ as it operated outside the party.
The other major frustration was the political direction of the SCSJ. Basically, it did not move beyond the defence of the declining welfare state. It was unable to present any vision of a different society or a different future. It was unwilling to criticize any of the shortcomings of the social and economic programs which formed the core of the Keynesian welfare state. Similar problems in other coalitions are noted by Dennis Howlett (1989). Part of the reason for this was the need to maintain the alliance of a wide range of groups. But to move beyond this was to engage in a political dialogue that would be similar to founding a new political party. At the last Peoples' Congress, when one discussion panel reported that the SCSJ should move in this direction, spokespersons from the SFL and the NFU said that if this happened their organizations would have to withdraw from the coalition.
The meetings of the SCSJ after the Romanow government took office illustrated the degree to which the NDP had hegemony over popular organizations in Saskatchewan. Very few people were in attendance. Delegates from the major organizations disappeared. The representatives from the SFL were always there, but it seemed that they were there to ensure that no action would be taken against the NDP government.
Forming the New Green Alliance
For the activists in the SCSJ, there were few illusions about the NDP government under Roy Romanow. From the day after the election Romanow made it clear that his primary goal in office would be to balance the budget and pay down the provincial debt. It was also known that he was a strong supporter of the policies of the New Zealand Labour government, which was in office between 1984 and 1990. This Labour government went farther than Margaret Thatcher's Tory government in repealing the welfare state and instituting free market and free trade policies.
The political left became disenchanted. The membership in the NDP declined dramatically. In 1993 a group of people who had been active in the SCSJ and some members of the Saskatchewan Young New Democrats began to hold informal meetings to discuss the future of social democracy and other new political alternatives.
In mid-1993 the Regina group decided to go public. Brief announcements were placed in Briarpatch and The Prairie Dog announcing the formation of a red green group in Regina. Around fifteen people responded, and the first formal meeting was held in September. A committee was struck to draft a statement of purpose. The group first adopted the name Red Green Alliance; later this was changed to Left Green Alliance, as some feared the term "red" would be identified by the public with the old Communist Party.
In 1994 the group made the local press. Victor Lau wrote a short piece for Briarpatch Magazine setting forth the idea that social justice policies also must be linked to environmental issues and sustainable development. The article reported that he was a member of the Left Green Alliance. At the time Lau was president of the SYND, and he was attacked by the party hierarchy. There was a motion introduced in his riding to have him expelled from the NDP. This came directly from the premier's office. Following protests by rank and file members, the NDP backed down. (Lau, 1994)
The Left Green Alliance formally went public in May 1995 with the publication of a statement of principles in Briarpatch Magazine. The statement drew heavily on the documents provided to the group by the Rainbow Alliance in Victoria, Australia. The original Left Green Alliance members shared certain fundamental political convictions. First, there was a dislike of capitalism and a desire to see it replaced by a new system based on democracy, co-operation and equality. There was a common agreement that they did not want to participate in the social democratic program, which at best was the reform of the worst aspects of capitalism. Second, there was a shared concern over the worsening of environmental problems, and in particular global warming and the depletion of the ozone layer. No social democratic party, anywhere, had taken environmental issues seriously. In Saskatchewan, as in Australia, the social democratic government, with its heavy reliance on industrial agriculture and natural resource extraction, emphatically denied that there was any problem.
The first general public meeting of the Left Green Alliance was held in October 1996. There was a broad discussion of social democracy and the NDP as well as discussion of possible alternative strategies. Other meetings were held. The central issue, which remained unresolved, was whether it was the time to begin the formation of a new political party. The task would be formidable. It would not have the support of the political leadership of the trade union movement. Many on the left were very critical of the direction of the NDP, admitted that it was highly unlikely that things would change, yet were unwilling to cut their historic ties to the mainstream Saskatchewan left. Instead, they quit the NDP and dropped out of politics.
In early 1997 the press reported that a group based in Lloydminister was calling for the formation of a new party. They called a conference for Saskatoon in February, and the Left Green Alliance was invited. But the Left Green Alliance representatives simply did not like the whole direction of the group. It was decided to remain open and fraternal to them but to concentrate on our political work.
In the fall of 1997 the Left Green Alliance was approached by a group of Regina environmentalists. They had worked for Jim Harding in his election to city council. Harding and this group had ideological ties to the Green Party of Canada. It was agreed to have a series of meetings to discuss whether or not to form a new political party.
Most of the members of the Left Green Alliance were political activists working in anti-poverty groups, the Saskatchewan Coalition Against Racism, the Saskatchewan Action Committee on the Status of Women, and the Young New Democrats. Only a few had been at all active in environmental groups, outside the general Saskatchewan left opposition to uranium mining. They were now joining forces with environmental activists. At the end of the third meeting, it was decided to poll those in attendance. Only one person objected to launching a new political party. It was widely agreed that the level of discontent and cynicism over the NDP had reached a high point. The members of the group were constantly being asked by friends when the new party would emerge. Now was the time to launch a party. If it failed, then at least it had been tried.
One of the key issues to be resolved was the relationship between a new party in Saskatchewan and the Green Party of Canada. Some members of the group wanted to become the provincial wing of the federal party. But this was firmly opposed by the members of the Left Green Alliance. They could not accept the argument of the GPC that "politics is no longer defined by the struggle between the Left and Right" but between Green and Grey. While everyone in the group believed that environmental issues were of central importance, the question of inequality of income and wealth, and exploitation and domination, were seen to be at least as important. In the end, it was agreed that the new name of the party would be the New Green Alliance, and it would have a loose affiliation with the Green Party of Canada.
Committees were established, and it was decided to call a press conference for Earth Day 1998 to announce the formation of a new party. Ten basic principles were adopted (See Appendix). Committees were formed to draft a set of basic principles and a constitution and bylaws. A founding convention was set for May 2. Environmental and Green Party activists from Saskatoon were invited to attend. Around 50 people attended the founding convention, adopted a number of policy resolutions, a temporary party structure was adopted, and plans were made for getting the signatures necessary for the party to be officially recognized. (See Gonick, 1998; Marsden, 1998)
New Green Alliance as an official political party
By January 1999 the NGA had been recognized as an official party. A convention was set for March to adopt the constitution and a platform for the 1999 provincial election. Roy Romanow declared that the NGA was "40 years out of date." The press commonly described the NGA as an attempt to revive the old CCF. Given the dwindling support for the NDP reflected in all the public opinion polls, the formation of a new party on the left could not be ignored.
In early March a conference was held in Saskatoon, sponsored by the Saskatchewan Coalition for Social Justice: "The Saskatchewan NDP in Power: A Critical Appraisal." Around 150 political activists attended. There was widespread criticism of the Romanow government, and three political options were identified. First there were those who felt that the left should continue to operate within the NDP. This had the weakest support at the conference. The second thrust was to continue to work in popular groups like the SCSJ and the Council of Canadians, which was expanding in Saskatchewan. The third position was to join the New Green Alliance. The conference revealed that many on the left, despite their dismay over the political direction of the NDP, were still not willing to join a new political party. (See also the survey by Roberts, 1999)
The second convention of the NGA was held in Saskatoon near the end of March. The constitution was approved in principle. But the primary focus of the convention was the forthcoming election. As required under the constitution, the party platform was adopted at the convention (See appendix). At this time the party had secured 13 candidates, and it was hoped that it would be able to run at least 20.
It was expected that the election would be held in June. But the time came, and Premier Romanow got cold feet. The nurses were on strike, and the NDP government was holding fast to the wage guidelines set for all public sector workers. As a result, three by-election had to be held. The NGA ran Neil Sinclair in Saskatoon-Fairview; with a minimal campaign, he obtained two percent of the votes. In Regina-Dewdney, Victor Lau ran a more serious campaign and received 10 percent of the vote. In Cypress Hills local NGA supporters could not come up with a candidate and did not participate in the election. There was a swing to the opposition Saskatchewan Party, but the real news was the very low level of voter participation. In the Regina and Saskatoon ridings, very safe NDP seats, the turnout fell to 33 percent and the NDP share of the vote fell significantly. (See Conway, 1999)
The general election was expected for October 1999, the usual date for a fall election in Saskatchewan. However, Premier Romanow shocked everyone by calling the election in August, when many people were away on holidays. Insiders say that the NDP establishment believed that with the best political organization, the NDP could win a majority of the seats with a low voter turnout.
The early election caught the NGA by surprise. Many people were away on holidays. In all, the party only was able to field 16 candidates. Another eight nominations were in sight but failed to get the necessary support to complete the required formal paperwork by the cut off date. While the NGA received fair media coverage during the by-elections, they were all but shut out by the mainstream media during the general election. The CBC refused to allow Neil Sinclair, the leader of the NGA, to participate in the television debates; they even refused to let party members in the studio during the debate. On election night the party was stunned to see that the television stations had not even put the NGA on their boards recording votes in the ridings.
Nevertheless, the NGA did relatively well. Where they ran candidates, they received on average five percent of the votes. This was not a bad showing given the fact that the party was new, it received no media coverage, and with little money they had carried out a minimal campaign.
There was a dramatic swing against the NDP in the election in the rural areas. The right-wing Saskatchewan Party, formed through an alliance between former Tories and Liberals, and headed by Elwin Hermanson, former Reform Party Member of Parliament, won 24 of the 30 rural seats and a slight plurality of the total vote. The NDP, facing the prospect of a minority government, signed a formal alliance with the three Liberal MLAs and formed the new government.
But the most noticeable fact in the election was the decline in voter turnout. Normally 80 percent of Saskatchewan adults vote. That was the turnout when the NDP swept into office in 1991. In the 1995 election, the turnout fell to 63 percent. In the 1999 election it is reported that 63 percent of enumerated voters went to the polls. But because of the snap election in the summer, the enumeration was unusually low. When measured against the number of eligible votes set by the census, the turnout across the province fell to 56 percent. (See Warnock, 1999b)
What we are witnessing in Saskatchewan is most probably a fundamental change. The NDP, the traditional governing party, is losing its dominant position. People who have traditionally voted for them are staying home, not yet prepared to vote for the New Green Alliance. Historically, the CCF and the NDP on the left were opposed by the Liberal Party on the right. Now they are in a formal governing alliance, and members of both parties are greatly disturbed. Political observers, and the "man in the street", agree that the next election will likely see the NDP run out of office as in 1982. The NDP will have been in office for three terms, and it will be time for a change. But with the NDP becoming a right-wing neoliberal party, the loss of members and supporters may be permanent.
The future of the New Green Alliance
There is growing opposition to the free market and free trade agenda of neoliberalism. As the NDP has moved to the right, it has adopted this direction as well. The NGA is the only party in Saskatchewan today that is at least committed to the keeping the basics of the Keynesian welfare state. It is the only party that takes a public position against the free trade agreements. It is the only party which is putting forth a long term vision of a participatory, egalitarian, ecological, democratic society.
As a new party, the NGA has the usual problems of lack of media coverage and lack of money to carry out a campaign. But there are other problems. They have found it very difficult to get people to run for office as they are so turned off by the political process. It has been most difficult to get women to stand as candidates. Of course, it is not easy for women to participate in politics, given the fact that they are primarily responsible for child care and most have jobs outside the home. But in addition, NGA women members and supporters do not like the whole process of electoral campaigning. In addition, the NGA lost a number of potential women candidates in the last election because it was not well enough organized to provide needed support. Most discouraging, two Aboriginal women had volunteered to run in Northern Saskatchewan but were not nominated because of lack of support from the party structure in Regina and Saskatoon.
There is some tension in the party between the greens and the reds. The social justice activists have considerable experience in political work. They have been pushing hardest for serious participation in the electoral campaigns. The environmental activists, in general, are not as interested in pushing the electoral role of the party. They prefer to do extra-parliamentary work.
Like most social justice and environmental organizations, the NGA depends on a core group of activists to do the practical work. A quick survey shows that most of these people have limited family commitments. Even activists on the left have to work for a living, and many choose to have some form of family life. Some even like to have fun once in a while! Thus the NGA faces the usual problem of overwork and burnout from its most active supporters. Some have already withdrawn from activism because of other commitments. Most of them have been women. NGA members are also all involved in community organizations. Finding enough time to add party work is a real problem.
Many in the NGA did not want to see the new party organized along the lines of the traditional political party. They strongly believe in grass roots democracy, participatory democracy and consensus decision making. This is entrenched in the NGA constitution. There is a proposal to include in the party structure the New Zealand Green Party and Brazilian Workers Party "group" as the basic party unit. But to date this has not developed. Because of electoral politics, the pressure is to organize on the constituency level.
As I write this, the New Green Alliance is in a relative state of limbo. Many have decided to step back a bit from all the work that was required in 1999. Yet the party has made a commitment to build its membership from 250 to 2,000 by the end of the year. It has also made a commitment to create an organization in all the provincial ridings. A summer campaign, and participation in the expected fall by-election have been planned. How successful they will be remains to be seen.
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