Why the Conservatives could sweep Saskatchewan...

By David McGrane on Oct 8, 2008

This op-ed piece will appear in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix on Thursday, October 9th.

With Conservative support taking a nosedive in Quebec, it seems that they need to add a considerable number of seats in English Canada if they are to form a majority government. All of the sudden, a Conservative sweep of Saskatchewan's seats could be the difference between a majority and minority Harper government. While Saskatchewan is an important part of the Conservatives' pursuit of a majority, our province also plays a key role in Stephen Harper's quest to reshape Canadian political culture.

On September 13th, Harper told the editorial board of the National Post that he wanted to "make conservatism the natural governing philosophy of our country." However, he was also clear that the Conservatives have to not only pull Canadians towards conservativism but they have to "move towards Canadians if they want to continue to govern the country." Harper's new conservativism places social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage on the backburner while focusing on blending fiscal responsibility and tax cuts with openness to multiculturalism, increased immigration, bilingualism, and accommodation of Québécois nationalism.

Harper is hoping that he will find fertile ground in Saskatchewan for his brand of moderate conservativism and this province will be an interesting test of his ability to edge Canadian political culture to the right. The eight federal ridings that encompass parts of Regina and Saskatoon are a mix of three distinct zones: rural, suburban, and inner cities. A party needs to win two out of these three major geographical zones to win the riding. The Conservatives' promises in this campaign have been carefully crafted to bring rural and suburban Saskatchewan into an electoral alliance that will ensure the Conservative dominance of our province into the future and bring them closer to their goal of becoming Canada's natural governing party.

Rural Saskatchewan has been a Conservative stronghold since the 1993 federal election when the Reform Party swept Saskatchewan's countryside. The Conservatives' promises to reduce taxes on diesel fuel, eliminate the gun registry, embark on senate reform, increase slaughterhouse capacity, and provide choice in wheat marketing are designed to maintain their supremacy in rural Saskatchewan. However, the Conservatives cannot sweep Saskatchewan on the strength of their rural vote alone.

The emerging suburban areas around Regina and Saskatoon are akin to what Michael Valpy, a columnist with the Globe and Mail, calls an "ideological no man's land." These suburban swing voters are mix-and-match of liberal and conservative values and are ultimately most interested in what works and what benefits them. They see themselves as free agents not tied to any particular party and generally have no strong ideological leanings.

The Conservatives have been very savvy at targeting suburban Saskatchewan voters in this election. Suburban voters are concerned about crime and may be pleased with the Conservatives' policies to enact stiffer sentences for criminals. These suburban free agents are attracted to the Conservative promises that give monthly cheques to parents to put towards the daycare option of their choice and their pledge of tax credits for children to take art and music lessons.

There are also certain Conservative promises that are equally attractive to both rural and suburban voters in Saskatchewan. Considering that Saskatchewan's economic boom is largely based on activities that release a large amount of carbon dioxide, rural and suburban voters in Saskatchewan like the Conservatives' approach to climate change which balances environmental concerns with the need to maintain a strong economy. With the recent decline in the price of oil and potash, Saskatchewan rural and suburban voters are sensing that the economic turmoil that has gripped the United States will also affect our current economic boom. Both suburban and rural voters seem to have confidence in the Conservatives' ability to guide the Canadian economy through the troubled waters ahead.

Ultimately, it is this alliance between rural and suburban voters that the Conservatives hope will vault them to a sweep of Saskatchewan. A Conservative sweep of Saskatchewan would prove that a significant part of the province's electorate has embraced Harper's moderate conservativism and has rejected Jack Layton's anti-business message of eliminating corporate tax cuts to increase social spending and Stéphane Dion's plan to combat climate change through using taxation to change consumer behaviour. A Conservative sweep may signal a subtle shift in Saskatchewan political culture that has long been associated with the popularity of social democracy and the electoral dominance of the CCF-NDP. On the other hand, the Conservatives swept Saskatchewan in 1963 and 1965 and these sweeps did not turn out to be indicators of a long-term shift in Saskatchewan's political culture. In the future, it will be interesting to see if a movement to the right in this federal election is a transient phenomenon or a permanent shift in Saskatchewan politics contributing to the reshaping of Canadian political culture in a more conservative mould.

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