Why the NDP may not be able to go home again

Cam Broten takes charge of a provincial Opposition faced with both low expectations and a premier who is the envy of Confederation

Why the NDP may not be able to go home again

Liam Richards/CP

These are hard times for the New Democratic Party in Saskatchewan—the party’s ancestral wellspring, the mecca it faces at prayer. Not so long ago, the NDP’s provincial leader was typically, by virtue of his office, the second-most prominent figure in the movement nationwide. Typically, that is, when he wasn’t in first place. And the New Democrats had the kind of sweet corner on Saskatchewan’s legislature that the Liberals had on the Dominion’s. From 1942 to 2009, every leader of the provincial party also served as premier at least once.

But the winner of the Saskatchewan NDP’s March 9 leadership tilt, Cam Broten, takes charge with the benefits and the burdens of low expectations. Broten now commands an Opposition of just nine members to the government’s 49, and Premier Brad Wall’s approval ratings are the envy of Confederation.

Broten, the 35-year-old MLA for Saskatoon-Massey Place, ran on a platform that was light on ideological tub-thumping and heavy on plans for rebuilding the NDP’s political institutions. Like the Progressive Conservatives in Alberta, the New Democrats had grown too dependent on the voters’ total psychological identification of the party with the government, and were perhaps not careful enough to ensure that the former could thrive if detached from the latter. Two years of drama at the Ottawa level of the NDP do not seem to have done Saskatchewan’s New Democrats any favours, and federal Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair’s views on resources and national unity have been—well, what’s the opposite of a favour?

When ex-leader Dwain Lingenfelter led the NDP to destruction in the province’s November 2011 election and lost his own Regina seat, the party had no obvious heir apparent. (The convention at which Broten was anointed gave us a likely preview of April’s federal Liberal event, with an over-the-top love-in for the interim party leader, John Nilson, and virtually no mention of Lingenfelter.) It thus settled on a long leadership process featuring no fewer than 13 candidates’ debates, with venues ranging from Melfort to Moose Jaw. If the brain trust was hoping for a snowball of publicity, it didn’t get it. A mid-February poll revealed that two-thirds of Saskatchewan voters couldn’t name any of the candidates and 45 per cent didn’t know there was a leadership contest on at all.

Broten’s victory seems attributable mostly to a fortunate choice of competitors. He had two rivals on the left of the party, pushing old-school soak-the-rich platforms: young labour economist Erin Weir and charismatic socially concerned doctor Ryan Meili. Given a full year of campaigning to test their strength, Weir and Meili decided that the doctor was the stronger contestant of the two, and signed a joint declaration of principles—but not until Feb. 20, too late to take Weir off the ballot.

Meanwhile, Broten had to fend off Regina MLA Trent Wotherspoon on his own right-ish establishment wing of the party. Unlike Wotherspoon, Broten received no endorsements from labour unions, nor did he gain support from the chorus of old NDP caucus members turfed out of the Assembly in the 2011 disaster. In today’s economically erumpent Saskatchewan, these naturally proved to be decisive advantages for Broten.

Not very decisive, mind you. Broten edged Meili on the final ballot by just 4,164 votes to 4,120. The 44-vote margin raises an interesting hypothetical: could Premier Wall and the Saskatchewan Party have quietly signed up temporary Trojan-horse NDP members to influence the outcome? There is no reason to think that the Sask Party did so, and one obvious reason to suppose it didn’t: Wall would probably prefer to run against Meili, a relative neophyte with some pretty radical ideas. Meili, who proposed to create a Crown corporation called SaskPharm to manufacture discount generic drugs in the province, has yet to run for the Saskatchewan legislature after two cracks at the party leadership.

The conditions of the Saskatchewan contest raise particularly urgent questions about open one-man-one-vote (OMOV) party leadership selection. The NDP in Saskatchewan right now is small enough to have been vulnerable to dirty tricks, even if none was contemplated. The uninspiring race failed to produce a strong front-runner, but the Saskatchewan Party would have had a clear preference. A governing party with copious resources and no more than the usual conscience could certainly engage in efficient sabotage of a weakened opposition. Producing 50 or 100 delegates to secretly vote for the “wrong” candidate in someone else’s leadership brawl is as easy as, well, producing 50 or 100 people to shift a nomination vote, as centralized party machines routinely do.

Actually, it’s much easier than that, since in the case of a nomination meeting, the bodies must usually be produced in person. The cost of a Saskatchewan NDP membership was $10 a head. The cost in effort of voting for a new leader was a phone call. Recent political headlines remind us that a human might not even be needed to place that phone call. How could sincere voters even hope to compete with devious saboteurs? If this sort of thing has not already happened, why hasn’t it?

One notices that 2011 was, in fact, a good year for incumbents in provincial elections: they went five-for-five. Could the spread of OMOV open primaries pave the way to even stronger positive incumbency effects in Canadian politics? The sabotage tactic does not work, of course, unless the rival party is both very badly defeated and very closely divided—and unless the saboteur has a preference in which he can be confident.

The federal Liberals are at a low ebb, for instance, but it does not appear there will be room for much doubt about the legitimacy of Justin Trudeau’s majority, even though it will have been assembled from “supporters” who did not have to put up cash at all. Serious national parties are safe from saboteurs, as are parties with strong, clear leaders or successors. But in the smaller provinces, or in smaller parties, turning leadership contests into membership-sales auctions would seem almost to amount to putting an explicit price tag on the whole thing.

Ironically, the NDP was late in switching to OMOV and gradually abandoning institutional defences against jiggery-pokery. The national party’s 2012 leadership election was the first not to assign a fixed voting weight to labour unions. The party’s traditional Manichaean, class-based worldview—recall Tommy Douglas’s fable of mice voting for voracious Tory and Grit cats—always encouraged it to imagine and guard against threats from the capital-B bosses. But the means eventually became incompatible with the “Democratic” boast in the party’s name.

The Americans understand the problem, which is not even so much about immunizing against dirty tricks as it is about balancing democratic signals with the need for a minimum of institutional continuity and elite control. They honour the OMOV spirit in both their constitutional arrangements and their party structures, but they limit, diffuse and obfuscate it by means of institutions such as the Electoral College and Iowa’s influential “caucus” system of candidate selection.

System components such as this have to evolve over time; no one would ever be permitted to invent and implement something as ludicrous as the Iowa caucuses all at once. But one part of the American model is adaptable without too much obvious mutilation of democracy. In picking presidential candidates, the national parties assign a fixed weight to “superdelegates”—officers of the party itself, along with people who hold or once held public office in its name.

A “superdelegate” model, which basically gives party grandees some earned permanent status and a chance to act collectively in an emergency, might work especially well for the New Democrats. Continuity is especially important to a party built on an explicit, non-negotiable ideological foundation. And since national integration ought to be one of the NDP’s advantages, maybe provincial and federal New Dems should have some say in one another’s leadership processes. “Democracy” does not really mean they have to give every schmuck with 10 dollars the same say as Ed Broadbent.

Unfortunately, that name reminds us of one of the problems the “superdelegate” idea faces in Canada. When Broadbent himself tried to intervene against Mulcair late in the 2012 federal NDP leadership race, some mysterious sense of Canadian/Victorian propriety was offended, and it was widely deemed a foul for Broadbent to exercise even the ordinary citizen’s right to speak his mind about the party’s future. Former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow was careful to clam up and observe this bizarre nicety right through the final weekend in the Saskatchewan NDP leadership campaign. Romanow just happens to be the last Saskatchewan NDP leader who won a half-decent electoral majority. Why on Earth wouldn’t his honest opinion be sought, and even accorded some extra influence?

On the web: For more Colby Cosh, visit his blog at