The Saskatchewan Election:

A 2020 Perspective

The 2020 Saskatchewan Election in Context

By Dr. KEN RASMUSSEN (PhD), Professor, Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Regina 

The 2020 provincial election resulted in the continued dominance of the Saskatchewan Party (Sask Party), which won a fourth consecutive majority government, further solidifying long-term changes taking place in Saskatchewan’s political culture. With a solid majority of seats and over 60 per cent of the popular vote, the election has provided more evidence that the old era of deeply divisive ideological-focused elections is over, and instead, what matters to voters are leadership and the perceived ability to manage the province’s volatile resource economy. This is not an uncommon trend across Canada, but in Saskatchewan it is a noteworthy development. Saskatchewan has moved away from a history of polarized elections that were fought between the “socialist” NDP on the left and a changing assortment of bearers of the banner of the “free market” party. This election result confirmed that a new context has emerged involving two dominant parties that focus on who will be better able to manage the status quo. The path to victory is achieved by gaining the support of enough swing voters who are found in Saskatchewan’s suburbs and smaller cities and who are concerned with very middle-class issues such as taxes, property values, health care, and schools. Clearly, the Sask Party has been much more effective at this than the NDP.

This trend towards less ideologically driven elections first appeared in 1991 when the NDP came to power offering a return to good government and managerial competence after a decade of contentious politics and a succession of massive deficits from Grant Devine’s Progressive Conservative Party. Keeping things afloat was the only option for the NDP that, from 1991–2007, came to embody the third way style of managerial government associated with Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, and Jean Chrétien. This period of NDP government came to an end in 2007, but it was not replaced by an updated version of the old divisive Progressive Conservative government. Rather, the NDP were defeated by the upstart Sask Party led by the young and charismatic Brad Wall who, having absorbed the lessons of the party’s earlier defeat in 2003 and fiascos of the 1980s, crafted a centrist platform with no social conservativism and a pledge not to engage in any privatization of the province’s remaining Crown corporations. This proved to be a winning formula in 2007, and the 2020 election confirmed that remains true today—just govern from the centre and leave the free market fundamentalism and social conservatism off the table.

The fact that there was little of substance that separated the two parties in this election proved that they both understood this new context. Of course, the impact of the pandemic certainly made it a very low-key election, but the biggest issues appeared to be the lingering hope that the resource boom might make a comeback. The earlier resource boom, which came between 2007 and 2015, strengthened the appearance of the Sask Party as successful managers by providing the government with healthy revenues and the opportunity to spend via tax cuts and new programs. At the same time, the province developed a more comprehensive suburban political ethic, with political parties appealing directly to this group of voters in a number of swing ridings. These suburban voters are keenly aware of how the resource economy fuels the province and the economic prospects for them and their families. The Sask Party has effectively branded themselves as the authors of this: the “New Saskatchewan”. Even the fact that the old Saskatchewan is now back economically speaking and Premier Moe has not delivered a balanced budget since taking over from Brad Wall in 2017 did not alienate voters, who appeared hopeful that the Sask Party might conjure up a return to prosperity.

The 2020 Saskatchewan election took place in a province that has changed in both demographic terms and in its political culture.

No longer a rural province, and also no longer a have-not province, Saskatchewan seems to be moving beyond the politics and battles of the past, and indeed, during the election, the name Justin Trudeau rarely came up.

While much of this change is no doubt contingent on high provincial resource revenues, it appears nevertheless that a new political culture has emerged and that it is unlikely to change; or if it does change, it is not likely to return to something from the 1970s. This shift began in the 1980s with the Devine government and the spectacular failure of a brand of right-wing populism that never really took hold in Saskatchewan. At the same time, Regina’s and Saskatoon’s suburbs both were getting new political constituencies, and other cities in Saskatchewan continued to expand as they absorbed the new waves of immigrants from abroad and internal migration from the shrinking rural communities. With this growth has come a new dominant suburban demographic that is interested in tax relief, home ownership, education, and health care, and both parties are struggling to manage the expectations of these voters.

Saskatchewan has seen a convergence in the values and economic interests of both urban and rural voters and likewise a convergence between the behaviours and preferences of voters throughout the province. In Saskatchewan, some class-based voting remains in that much of the NDP core support, confirmed again in this election, comes from the poorer urban areas of Saskatoon and Regina, but this too is also changing. But any party that wins a majority needs to cobble together support from rural and urban Saskatchewan. The fear, however, that Saskatchewan was becoming a province irrevocably divided by rural and urban patterns of voting has not been realized. Indeed, the election of 2020 proved in fact that the reverse was true and that rather than a divided province, there was an increasing common suburban culture emerging that pushed both parties to offer modest reforms and not worry about the deficit.

When we examine the 2020 election, it is clear that both parties clearly identified this trend. The political parties recognize that the median voter is essentially a middle class “suburbanite” in terms of values and preferences, and these are the classic swing voters that parties targeted in the 2020 election— but it is a wide and growing group of voters including most new immigrants, and this trend shows no signs of slowing its growth or its influence in the future. Certainly, the 2020 election has proven again that there is a greater increase in voters who identify as middle class, with each election resulting in a greater convergence in the policy position of the two main parties. Saskatchewan has been transformed into a suburban province, and this will dictate both the politics and the public policy program for the province in the years to come.