REGINA — Saskatchewan’s premier and Opposition leader are heading into an election year and looking to dig into each other’s political bases.
Voters are to go to the polls in the fall in what will be the first provincial election for Premier Scott Moe as Saskatchewan Party leader and for the NDP’s Ryan Meili, both of whom came to power through leadership contests.
Meili, a family-doctor-turned politician, admits his New Democrats —in Opposition for more than a decade — are the clear underdogs.
Polling shows there’s an appetite for change, he says. And after years of struggling to gain a foothold in rural Saskatchewan, he’s hoping for a breakthrough.
“I want to see a rural MLA,” Meili said in a year-end interview with The Canadian Press.
“Those are some seats where we know we’ve got a real shot.”
Six byelections held since the 2016 election illustrate a rural and urban divide.
While the NDP won three seats in Regina and Saskatoon, including Meili’s in Saskatoon Meewasin, the party only received about 2,400 votes in three rural byelections. More than 10,000 ballots were cast there for Sask. Party candidates, who secured more than 70 per cent of the vote.
“The NDP has not been successful in rural Saskatchewan for some time,” said Meili, who leads a 12-member caucus of predominately Regina and Saskatoon legislature members.
The challenge, he said, will be disproving assumptions the NDP isn’t interested in rural Saskatchewan by demonstrating it views agriculture and access to key services as important.
Meili is also promoting his own rural credentials. The opening shot of a campaign video posted to his Twitter feed shows him on his family’s farm southwest of Moose Jaw.
Meili said he expects the New Democrats will gain more seats in their Regina and Saskatoon bases, as well as see success in Moose Jaw. But he’s also hopeful for its fortunes in the rural constituencies of Last Mountain-Touchwood, Indian Head-Milestone and Batoche.
While the Sask. Party won’t neglect its rural constituents, it will pay close attention to cities big and small, Moe said.
“The urban centres have been more of a battleground, if you will, for both parties — not just our party,” Moe said.
He attributes Sask. Party byelection defeats in Saskatoon and Regina to “challenging budgets” over the last few years. The party claimed between 30 and 40 per cent of the vote in the Saskatoon and Regina byelections compared with the NDP’s 50 to 60 per cent.
He also said Regina, Saskatoon and the surrounding areas have seen a lot of the province’s population growth, which has presented challenges.
“We opened a number of new schools here in Regina and one of them is over-capacity already,” said Moe.
“We need to continue to build the infrastructure that we have … most notably of that will be quite likely a conversation around are we using all of our infrastructure assets in the way of education and is there a need for further investment.”
Growth will be a theme for Moe in the new year. He said the government will be making decisions with an eye towards adding 300,000 more residents to the population over the next decade.
Running a balanced budget is also part of Moe’s plan.
The New Democrats are heading into 2020 focused on concerns around hallway medicine in health care and the needs of classroom teachers and their students.
The party’s slogan of “putting people first” will also help inform its spending platform, Meili said.
“I’m not one of these people who thinks we should short change the future right now for really what is a false balance.”