Wednesday, August 17, 2011

NDP failing to define itself

By Murray Mandryk
The Leader-Post
August 17, 2011

Perhaps the Saskatchewan Party's greatest success this term has been its revisionism of its predecessor.

To listen to the Sask. Party and its water carriers right now, one would assume we haven't done enough to rid ourselves of the hammer-andsickle thinking foisted upon us during 16 years of NDP rule. In fact, so onerous was the yoke of NDP socialism (you hear that term "NDP socialists" more today than when the NDP was in power) that the Sask. Party has been forced to change ... well, actually very little.

Corporate and business tax structure? There's been very little change. Actually, the big tax cut has been the increase of the basic personal income tax exemption that benefits low-income earners more than higher earners. That hardly constitutes a declaration of war on socialism.

Crown corporations? Contrary to the union ads, there is no massive '80s-style privatization agenda. Heck, you can't even get this government to talk about privatizing liquor stores.

Resource policy? Premier Brad Wall's argument last fall to keep out BHP Billiton was based on the notion that potash is a shared resource belonging to all Saskatchewan people - crazy socialist talk that vaulted Wall to the status of the most popular premier in Canada.

Meanwhile, oil royalty rates haven't changed from the largely industry-friendly policies of the previous NDP government. And the Sask. Party staunchly resists any notion of structural changes solely on the basis that these were the NDP rates set by former resources minister Eric Cline to spur potash mine expansion.

But it's also about here where one begins to see that New Democrats may be as much to blame for their identity crisis as the Sask. Party and its supporters. And while the NDP's identity problems can be laid at the feet of current leader Dwain Lingenfelter, this identity issue likely goes back years, if not decades.

Sometime between Roy Romanow's hell-bent determination to erase the Progressive Conservative debt legacy in its first term in office and Lorne Calvert's last-ditch attempt to buy off voters with subsidized utility bills and free prescription drugs, New Democrats clearly forgot who they were. This was a government that had slid so far from its social democratic roots that it allowed itself to be replaced by a slightly more right-wing version of itself in Brad Wall's government.

However, in the four years since that very disjointed 2007 election campaign, which offered no explanation of an NDP vision, there's been remarkably little soul-searching in NDP ranks as to what a social democratic party has to offer voters in the 21st century. It's a problem exacerbated under Dwain Lingenfelter's leadership - best defined as being far angrier at Brad Wall than voters could possibly be under today's circumstances. In fact, the irony is that the NDP can't argue voters should be angry at Brad Wall when Wall has continued to deliver pretty much what the NDP governments were providing.

Admittedly, that's not completely fair to the Sask. Party government, which has taken on a couple of issues the NDP simply would not touch. While labour law changes affecting trade union certification and construction workers were either punitive or fobs to political contributors in business, there's little question Saskatchewan needed essential services rules. And, in a somewhat similar vein, the Sask. Party's private surgeries to reduce waiting lists are some of the first health-care delivery innovations we've seen.

But Wall's true magic is neither his self-effacing charisma nor his remarkably fortuitous timing. The genius of Brad Wall has been to keep giving voters what they liked about the NDP while packaging changes as irrefutable evidence of how the province was being held back by the socialist hordes.

It's a task made easier by the utter failure of the Lingenfelter-led NDP to tell us what it is about. For example, if potash mine-expansion credits was such a bad idea, why did its own government implement them? And what would it do with the added revenue?

Failing to define what you stand for in politics simply allows your opponent to do so.

And the Sask. Party has been very good at defining an NDP opponent that can't seem to define itself.

Mandryk is the political columnist for the Leader-Post.

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