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Will The New NDP Leadership Be A Force For Sustainability?


We’ll need a vibrant democracy not shirking from the challenges of sustainability to make a necessary transition. How are we doing in Saskatchewan? And will the new NDP leadership enhance our quest to become a sustainable society?

I was looking forward to the spring equinox and enjoying the sun’s light reflecting off the record-breaking snowpack in the coulee where we live, when CBC radio reminded me that 800 NDPers were gathered in Saskatoon to pick their new leader. Three candidates, all caucasian men in their thirties, were left in the race; economist Erin Weir dropped out in support of medical doctor Ryan Meili. The other candidates, MLA’s Cam Broten and Trent Wotherspoon, had survived the 2011 Sask Party onslaught that left the NDP decimated.

After receiving Yens Pedersen’s support, Meili ran second to Lingerfelter (45/55%) in 2009. Now he’s run a sound grass-roots campaign and considered by some the front-runner. But the politicos who maneuver in the halls of power remain very influential in the party. And there are still some who think the NDP remains the natural governing party; if they wait for the global commodity market to crash and Wall’s government to stumble, they’ll be able to return to power in the marble halls. They remain in a bubble where the gathering challenges of sustainability, such as food and water security, are mistakenly pragmatically viewed as single issues to be weighed among all the rest.

The Scenarios

With results of the first ballot expected in an hour, I put on my political thinking hat. If Broten led after the first ballot it seemed likely that Wotherspoon supporters would shift to keep the party on its business-as-usual course. If non-MLA-“outsider” Meili was well ahead, there might be enough momentum for him to win.

The votes would be quite small. Though on the rise, party membership remains historically low, at 11,000, compared to 50,000 when the inspiration and courage of a previous generation of progressives brought Canada Medicare. I wondered if it made much difference who won. What sign is there that the Saskatchewan NDP is willing or capable of making a shift away from conventional political strategizing? What did they learn from 2011 anyway? And does the party have a big enough base to be able to get significant political traction? There’s an urgent need for a sound opposition to make the case for a steady shift towards sustainability. Could the NDP under new, younger leadership begin to fill this vacuum? I wasn’t sure.

I awaited the next results in a somewhat neutral mindset. I had long ago shed my childhood identification with the CCF-NDP. I had seen too much realpolitik and the willingness of the NDP “brass” once in power, to sacrifice the environment for toxic resource development. It was impossible to forget that Saskatchewan reached its world record-setting per capita carbon footprint under successive NDP governments.

Meili Ahead

The results came in with Meili ahead with 3,384 and Broten with 2,942 votes. Wotherspoon ran last, with 2,120 votes, so it would be his supporters that would shape the direction of the party. But with Meili only 442 ahead, even with a victory there would be a lot of drag holding the party back from visionary renewal.

The small vote, 8,719 in a province of over 1,000,000, suggests that the party remains fairly marginalized. In a recent poll only 37% of residents could name one of the leadership candidates. The NDP’s elected opposition and seven month leadership campaign apparently hadn’t made the wider public aware of any NDP alternatives to the Wall government. Being mostly unwilling or unable to raise fundamental questions about the resource “boom”, including vital issues about sustainability, this is not too surprising.

A Meili Victory

I imagined what a Meili-led NDP might look like. His message is expressed in his book 8A Healthy Society: How a Focus on Health Can Revive Canadian Democracy.* A family doctor with both international and inner-city experience, Meili stresses the determinants of health: income, education, employment, early childhood, food security, housing, etc. This is a natural perspective for serious social democrats, for it enables them to place the pursuit of equality back on the political agenda. As Meili says, a more equalitarian society will have better health outcomes, no matter where people are on the income ladder. The pursuit of equality and health can put compassion and justice on a more solid political footing which is needed to challenge the corporate-libertarian rhetoric so widespread today.

But compassion has to be linked to sustainability. Meili acknowledges environmental health, yet in his May, 2012 Tedx talk at the U of R he spoke as though better health is good for today’s economy by creating “more market participation, more productivity and more taxes”. Economic growth and a healthy society are however often at odds and many diseases are linked to industrial productivity and marketing which encourages over-consumption.

Promoting a healthy society is a start but there’s also a need to challenge the conventional notion of a “healthy economy”. The rising worth of stocks and profit-taking can be an indicator of more uranium and carbon and other toxins degrading the biosphere; growth is not necessarily a measure of ecological and human wellbeing. Roy Romanow wrote the preface for Meili’s book and is now a promoter of wellness indicators, but as NDP Premier he downplayed distributive justice and encouraged the expansion of wealth-generating, toxic resource extraction.

A Broten Victory

This debate about a healthy society, environmental protection and economic reform would be a good start in Saskatchewan. But after the second-ballot results I wondered whether I was imagining in vain. Voting went down to 8,284, a decrease of over 400 votes. These potential voters might have cost Meili dearly for he lost by only 44 votes; Broten received 4,164 votes to Meili’s 4,120. Broten had gained enough Wotherspoon support.

Unlike in 2009, when Lingenfelter won with 55%, this vote was pretty much 50/50. Will this leave the NDP more emotionally split than ever? Even after the catastrophic 2011 results, a historically-low membership and a seven-month leadership campaign, in the crunch the party seemed to opt for business-as-usual.

Broten will return to the legislature to respond to the upcoming Sask Party budget as Leader of the Opposition. Will the NDP voice remain muted, drawing on the same economistic rhetoric used by the governing party? As one blogger said of Broten, he is “suitable for the Sask Party or the NDP”. He talks of “reducing inequality”, which is something Premier Wall can easily co-opt. Unlike Meili, who speaks of “creating an equalitarian society” and has worked in the medical trenches, Broten’s healthcare experience is as a former policy manager with the Saskatchewan Medical Association. While today’s doctors are more supportive of public healthcare, it was this business organization of doctors, the SMA that fought hard to defeat Medicare. When I directed a research program in Sask Health in the 1980s we ran into serious SMA resistance when we showed that the fee-for-service payment system not only cost taxpayers but encouraged inappropriate and over-prescribing.

Broten now has his chance. He speaks of rebuilding the NDP: members must matter; the party needs modernizing; it needs more women. But to what end? Are we going to just switch political managers of an unsustainable resource extraction economy, a modern version of what Tommy Douglas called “tweedle-dee, tweedle-dum” politics? Are we going to seriously engage with equality, ecology and the future? With a 50/50 split and Broten saying he’s committed to building unity, he may have no alternative but to embrace a debate about a healthy society. This could get political traction and inch us towards a sustainable society. We need to closely watch whether this happens.

Jim Harding PhD Retired Professor of Environmental and Justice Studies

R-Town # March 13, 2013