The Saskatchewan Election:
A 2020 Perspective
Leadership: Signs of the Times
Amazing what you can learn from a billboard. If it wasn’t already clear, it became abundantly obvious in early 2020 what the Saskatchewan Party wanted the ballot question to be in the upcoming provincial election. As the party began to set the stage for the election, it invested heavily in billboards around the province. They featured a large picture of smiling party leader Scott Moe next to the words “Strong Leadership, Strong Saskatchewan.” The message was simple. All you had to do was connect the dots.
The fact that leadership would be a central theme in the campaign was hardly unique, or surprising. Party leaders have always played a dominant role in Saskatchewan politics, and the 2020 campaign was no different. It is a tradition that reaches back to Tommy Douglas and was subsequently personified through the years by the likes of Ross Thatcher, Allan Blakeney, Grant Devine, Roy Romanow, Lorne Calbert, and Brad Wall. So, you might say that history had already set the stage for leadership being the key to the 2020 election.
In a parliamentary system, party leaders play an outsized role. The reason is simple. As leaders, they are running to be elected to head a government, whether as prime minister or premier. They are seen to embody all the qualities, policies, and flaws of the party they lead. In the public mind, they are being judged within that exclusive context, unlike other local candidates who do not face the same broadly based scrutiny. Effective leaders in electoral terms are those who reflect and can communicate the core values, attributes, and priorities of the party they lead. It’s a reality that also forces to the sidelines the leaders of other parties that have no realistic hope of winning government. The result was that Green Party leader, Naomi Hunter; Progressive Conservative leader, Ken Grey; Buffalo Party leader, Wade Sira; and Liberal leader, Robert Rudachyk, were effectively relegated to irrelevance, with the one televised leader debate showcasing Moe and NDP leader Ryan Meili, who, based on public polling, were duelling for power.
Ultimately, the key ingredient to successful leadership is trust. It is the foundation for a leader’s integrity and credibility, without which all is lost.
Trust is where leadership begins and ends. If voters trust a leader to do the right thing, or at least live up to his or her word, then a leader has passed the most critical test of character in politics.
In that leader-to-leader frame for the campaign, Moe had an advantage over Meili because, as Premier, Moe was better known and had a much higher profile than Meili. Both were running in their first election as leader, but Moe had the benefit of almost three years of profile as Premier after winning the Saskatchewan Party leadership in 2018. In that sense, Moe had a record that he could be measured against, both good and bad. Moe talked about the Sask Party’s plan for economic recovery and used its record during 13 years in office, when the province went through a period of sustained growth, as reason to trust his leadership in the coming years. A record of nine deficit budgets, including six consecutive operating deficits since 2014, seemed not to undermine Moe’s message of economic and fiscal management.[i] It was unstated, but the leadership message drew no small amount of its meaning from the person Moe replaced, Brad Wall, who spent much of his decade in office as the most popular Premier in the nation.
There were no similar yardsticks for Meili. As leader of the opposition, Meili had a record that was rhetorical and based on impressions rather than actual outcomes. Recognizing that disadvantage, the NDP campaign was purposefully far less leader oriented than the Saskatchewan Party’s emphasis. The NDP’s strategy was to differentiate itself from the Saskatchewan Party by focusing on policy priorities that would “put people first,” rather than the image or personality of its leader. So just as the Sask Party wanted the campaign to pivot on leadership, the NDP sought the opposite; it wanted attention to be on specific policies that distinguished it from the alternative, specifically more funding for education, health care, expanded home care, and a ‘Saskatchewan First’ procurement policy. But the NDP could also not escape the long shadow of almost three decades ago when the NDP government of the day closed 52 hospitals—a fact Moe reminded voters of at every opportunity.
The focus on leadership in this election was also different. Unfolding in the midst of a COVID-19 pandemic, it was a campaign unlike any other. The underlying sense of personal vulnerability due to the public health crisis changed not only the terms of engagement in the campaign but also the lens through which voters viewed the leadership issue. If ever there was a need for public trust in leaders doing the right thing, it was this election when people couldn’t help but think their lives might depend on it.
Curiously though, issues around the pandemic itself were never a central focus of the campaign. In the months leading up to the election, there was little in the way of partisan debate over the government’s management of the pandemic. With the public health response shaped by health experts and epidemiologists, politics was largely kept out of it. To try and take advantage of a serious public health issue would be considered unseemly. Other than questions in the lead up to the campaign about the government’s plans for the safe re-opening of schools, there was never any evidence of significant unease with Moe’s leadership in handling the pandemic. Not even the fact that Meili is a medical doctor was enough for the New Democrats to seize on the issue.
Briefly in this campaign, the issue of trust became front and centre. It emerged when reports surfaced that Moe had been involved in what had been an unreported driving incident in 1994 when he was charged with impaired driving and leaving the scene of an accident. This new revelation was in addition to two previously known driving mishaps from his youth, one in 1997 involving an accident when a young mother was killed and the other an impaired driving charge. Moe had never revealed the earlier incident, he said, because the charges were stayed.
It became a pivotal moment, one that could erode the public trust and subsequent credibility of the Saskatchewan Party leader. The fact that the information had been kept from the public, when the Premier had spoken about the earlier driving convictions, became a matter of trust. But a week later, an Angus Reid poll done in the wake of the revelations indicated the public’s political judgment had not been affected in any significant way by the revelation. The Saskatchewan Party maintained an overwhelming 27-percentage-point lead over Meili and the NDP.
The resilience of public opinion support for the Saskatchewan Party and its leader in the wake of the revelations demonstrated that Moe still held the trust of the electorate. For a campaign explicitly designed around the issue of leadership, it was a telling moment.