NDP keeping gov’t on its toes – Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Murray Mandryk
Saskatoon Starphoenix December 1st, 2012

To suggest that the Opposition is winning the political war in Saskatchewan would be to overstate whatever small wins it has recently enjoyed.

The NDP still has to contend with a popular leader in Premier Brad Wall. And his massive 49-member caucus is still presiding over a robust economy, and the only balanced budget in Canada.

Moreover, the Saskatchewan Party remains much better at the political game, as evidenced by the party’s current TV ads that leave the impression that any one of the four contenders for the provincial NDP leadership simply would be a puppet to the Eastern Canadian and Quebec interests of federal party leader Thomas Mulcair.

It’s obvious the Saskatchewan Party has learned from its federal Conservative counterpart the importance of defining one’s political enemies before they get a chance to define themselves.

All this has contributed to what can best be described as a new political phenomenon in Canada: No longer do we talk about the Alberta Conservatives as the political untouchables in our country. Brad Wall’s Saskatchewan Party has inherited that title.

It is in this context that any discussion of the success of the leaderless NDP Opposition must begin. And it’s surprising how many small victories the NDP has enjoyed of late – little wins that have left the government scrambling, and sometimes off its agenda. Take Friday’s news of the rapidly growing HIV/AIDS problem in Saskatchewan, even though it seems wrong to categorize such a sad development in the trite context of political wins and losses. News on World AIDS day that updated 2011 figures show that HIV cases in Saskatchewan grew to 186 from 173 in 2010 came a day after Opposition MLA Cam Broten raised concern in the legislature with Health Minister Dustin Duncan about the lack of awareness of this issue in the province.

Granted, this is not an epidemic or an issue for which any individual government should be blamed, and it will not change votes. But the fact the health minister was scrambling in the chamber Thursday with two-year old statistical information was informative.

Not every issue has been a win for the NDP. Its handling of the growing public debt, and the privatization of the Information Services Corp. could have been better. But this small NDP caucus has often been at the forefront of developing issues, or has been able to set the political debate with issues of its own.

Another example is New Democrat Trent Wotherspoon’s questioning of the Kal Tire relocation, which is caught up in a squabble between the City of Regina and the Rural Municipality of Sherwood. The dispute forced Economy Minister Bill Boyd to zip out to Kal Tire headquarters in British Columbia to convince company owners not to relocate to Manitoba.

It also likely played a role in the introduction of legislation Wednesday to make the Global Transportation Hub (GTH) more like a port authority – both wise moves on the part of a government that seems to have put out a fire here. However, in his response to the GTH bill, Wotherspoon might have planted some seeds of concern about whether taxpayers are getting value for money for the more than $27 million they have invested in the project.

And maybe the best example of the NDP forcing the government to deal publicly with an issue was Broten’s questions regarding the federal Conservatives’ horrific refugee health-care policies.

Again, such issues are not great political wins. Nevertheless, having Opposition politicians who are capable of keeping ministers on their toes is always a good thing. Even more encouraging is that they have done this through reasoned argument rather than the bombastic grandstanding one might expect from leadership hopefuls.

But it hasn’t just been Broten and Wotherspoon doing the job. Credit labour critic David Forbes for his dogged pursuit on the asbestos registry, and safety for night-shift workers. Forbes has been equally effective in raising concerns whether Labour Minister Don Morgan’s labour law – to be finally introduced Tuesday – will serve any purpose other than to appease the Saskatchewan Party’s business donors.

It’s not likely that the NDP will win the labour war, on which the government seems to be taking the same unflinching stance it took on the film tax credit. Moreover, the Saskatchewan Party understands that voters are far more concerned about jobs, a strong economy and balanced budgets.

But give this small Opposition credit for holding the government’s feet to the fire.

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