Romanow Re-elected With Minority Government

In one stump speech after another during the 28-day Saskatchewan election campaign, Premier Roy Romanow returned to the same refrain. "Don't judge me against perfection," he urged voters. "Judge me against the alternatives." The pithy quote was meant to play to what was supposed to be the veteran NDP leader's greatest advantage - the political inexperience and internal divisions plaguing his two main rivals, the Saskatchewan Party and the Liberals. Most voters accepted the premier's invitation - but then came to what, for Romanow, was a stunning conclusion. When the results were tallied last Thursday night, the commanding majority the NDP had enjoyed in the provincial legislature for eight years had been reduced to the barest of minorities - and the right-wing Saskatchewan Party had come within a whisker of winning office. "We may not have won the prize," Saskatchewan Party Leader Elwin Hermanson told cheering supporters, "but we sure surprised the winners."

The results, in fact, caught political observers flat-footed. Three public opinion polls during the campaign showed the NDP with a comfortable lead - and suggested that Romanow was the overwhelming choice for premier when compared with Hermanson and Liberal Leader Jim Melenchuk. What the polls failed to reflect, however, was the depth of the fury and frustration among Saskatchewan farmers, many of whom are on the brink of bankruptcy due to low commodity prices. It didn't help that rural residents were also bristling over a host of other irritants, including crumbling highways, high land taxes and hospital closures imposed by the Romanow government.

Hermanson, a farmer and former Reform MP, was the beneficiary of that rural wrath. The Saskatchewan Party actually won more of the popular vote than the NDP, 39.6 per cent to 38.7, but took 26 seats, compared with 29 for the NDP and three for the Liberals. While the NDP continued to dominate the cities, the Saskatchewan Party victories came from the province's farm belt and the small towns and villages that still depend on agriculture. "Hermanson was talking to these people in a language they understood," says University of Saskatchewan political scientist John Courtney. "He is one of them in a way that Romanow clearly is not."

In fact, for all his political polish and acumen, the Saskatoon-born Romanow has sometimes endured an uneasy relationship with rural Saskatchewan. As opposition leader in the 1980s, the urbane lawyer was famously confronted by a farmer who graced his tractor with a sign reading, "This is a tractor, Roy." At the outset of this year's campaign, Romanow urged farmers to rally around the NDP, to give him a strong mandate to negotiate with Ottawa. But the appeal fell on deaf ears. "I just felt throughout the campaign that Mr. Hermanson's criticisms of Mr. Romanow had a lot of bite," says New Democrat Bob Pringle, a former social services minister who did not seek re-election. "Roy has spent a lot of time in rural Saskatchewan but it's often hard for urban politicians to really understand the concerns out there."

On election night, as he stood before cheering supporters at Saskatoon's Centennial Auditorium, a subdued Romanow tried to reach out once again. Addressing his first remarks to the beleaguered farming community, he said: "You have spoken clearly tonight about your concerns about the worst year in rural Saskatchewan since the 1930s. And I have heard you and, of course, all of Canada has heard you."

The next day, Romanow went to ground, cancelling a news conference and huddling instead with advisers to ponder his options. He must decide how soon he wants to convene the legislature. Whenever that happens, Romanow will be in the unfamiliar position of having to appease his opponents, not only to get his agenda passed but to ensure his survival. He will be paying particular attention to the Liberal party, which garnered 20.2 per cent of the popular vote but just three seats, including that of Melenchuk, a soft-spoken Saskatoon physician. Melenchuk, who seemed somewhat taken aback by his new status as kingmaker, was setting few firm preconditions, other than that he wanted Romanow to act decisively on the farm crisis and to keep the budget balanced. One option for Romanow: entice a Liberal to be the house Speaker - who votes only in the event of a tie - effectively giving the NDP a one-vote majority.

But in the short term, at least, much of the spotlight will fall on Hermanson, whose breakthrough last week seemed unimaginable when the Saskatchewan Party was founded in August, 1997. An amalgam of four former Conservative and four disaffected Liberal MLAs, the party set out to unite the right in the wake of the demise of the once-powerful Saskatchewan Conservatives. The Tories formally folded their tent two years ago, following corruption charges against more than 15 MLAs and party workers.

For most of the campaign, pollsters, pundits and the media wrote off the new party - the "Sask-a-Tories," as Romanow derisively dismissed them. But Hermanson insisted that victory was within his grasp. As it turned out, he had correctly read the mood of rural Saskatchewan, where his roots run deep. The Saskatchewan Party leader grew up in the small farming community of Beechy, which was then so far removed from the provincial road system that it was cut off from the nearest schools in the winter months.

Hermanson still continues to farm part time near Beechy. Elected to Parliament as a Reform MP in 1993, he was the party's house leader and agriculture critic before being defeated in the 1997 federal election. Since taking over the Saskatchewan Party in April, 1998, he has pursued a Reform-like agenda, emphasizing steep tax cuts and smaller government. The 47-year-old father of three traces his political philosophy directly to his farm roots. "You learn to be self-reliant," he told Maclean's last week. "You learn the work ethic. But you also learn the value of community and working together."

If Hermanson is ever to become premier, he will have to make his folksy traditionalism attractive to urban voters. Courtney, for one, thinks that is conceivable. The political scientist points out that the Saskatchewan Party finished a respectable second in several Regina and Saskatoon ridings, while barely campaigning in the cities. "On paper, they are a government-in-waiting," says Courtney. "But even so, they remain an untried commodity."

And then there is the Romanow factor. With more than 30 years in politics, the 60-year-old premier is nothing if not a survivor. "The Roy Romanow I know is a fighter," says Patricia Atkinson, Romanow's minister of education. "This is the kind of result to make him roll up his sleeves and work even harder." If true, expect to see a lot more of the sophisticated socialist down on the farm.

Maclean's September 27, 1999