Though the formation of the Saskatchewan Party was not formally announced until last Friday [Aug. 8, 1997], according to Rod Gantefoer, the former Liberal MLA for Melfort-Tisdale, the seeds of the idea were planted within him over three decades ago.
Gantefoer was one of four Liberal MLAs and four Progressive Conservative MLAs that joined forces last week, leaving their respective parties to form the new Saskatchewan Party. According to Gantefoer, who admits he was virtually born and raised Liberal, the idea first came to light in conversations with his late father prior to his death in 1968.
“He always said it was too bad the Liberals and Conservatives wouldn't get together to br one clear alternative to the NDP,” the Melfort-Tisdale MLA recalled.
Over the years, similar conversations arose from time to time as a direct result of the traditional state of Saskatchewan politics, Gantefoer claimed, comparing the Liberal and Conservative forces in the province to opposing forces on a teeter-totter taking successive turns rising and falling.
“That meant 40 per cent of the people would be the government 80 per cent of the time. It’s frustrating,” he remarked. “Over the last couple of years it’s not even been teetering anymore. It’s almost stalled.”
Neither the Liberals or the Tories seemed to be making any progress in the province and, for Gantefoer, the degeneration of the Liberal caucus into a group wrought with internal bickering and pettiness brought the idea to the forefront. Though he had not made a formal decision to support such a move previously, Gantefoer said the turning point came shortly after a confidential discussion of the idea earlier this year was publicly denounced by one of his Liberal colleagues, Gerald Aldridge.
“That was the final straw. If there was a defining moment, that would be it.”
From the start, Saskatchewan Party supporters have argued with conviction not to simply create a new party through a merger of the Liberal and Conservatives. Rather, they wanted to create a new party with grassroots input, not controlled by the backroom meetings that have been all too prevalent in the Liberal and Tory factions.
The grassroots input, in Gantefoer’s opinion, is essential to the success of the Saskatchewan Party.
“The success of the Reform party reaffirms what people in this province want.”
The other focus of the new party is to provide an open alternative for former Liberals and Conservatives, Reform supporters, disillusioned NDP supports and people not previously affiliated with any political party to join together to form an alternative to the NDP.
“As one of the eight MLAs, we were willing to put our political necks on the line to let this happen,” Gantefoer commented. “This is an exciting and important development in Saskatchewan politics.
“I think the people think it makes sense,” he continued. “There’s a lot of apprehension, a great deal of shock, surprise, and some hurt but they’re willing to look at this and give it some time.”
When elected to government in 1995, Gantefoer was voted in as a Liberal Member of the Legislative Assembly. Gantefoer jumped ship midway through the term he was elected to serve as a Liberal to form the Saskatchewan Party.
Though he did not consult directly with his constituents before making the decision, Gantefoer was confident of the support of the majority of his constituents before he made the move and left the Liberal party. Gantefoer met with 20 to 30 members of the Melfort-Tisdale Liberal executive prior to joining those forming the new party.
“They virtually unanimously agreed I should do this. In so far as I could, I did get input with local people and consulted with people I regard as my mentors in the constituency and the feedback was positive.”
Though the MLAs that currently form the nucleus of the new party have considered resigning, Gantefoer does not believe it would be fair to any constituents to proceed in that direction at this time. To resign and run as candidates for the Saskatchewan Party, at this time, is not feasible as the new party has not yet been officially been accepted.
According to Gantefoer, it may take until early 1998 before the Saskatchewan party is in place. By the time a byelection could be called, there would be just nine to 12 months before a provincial election would likely be called. The expense associated with a byelection is another factor in the decision not to proceed with MLA resignations.
“It's not responsible to put taxpayers through that kind of situation,” Gantefoer commented, adding, “Once you’re elected as an MLA, you're supposed to be there for the people. You're there for everyone, not just the people that elected you.”
If reaction from constituents in Melfort-Tisdale is any indication, Gantefoer feels confident the electorate is largely supportive of his move. Since the new party was announced last week, he has been inundated with calls.
“I've had some enthusiastic support, a strong majority have been very supportive. A good number are curious and want to know more information,” he told the Recorder. “I've had very few but a couple have said they just can’t go along with it. None of the debate has been with any harshness.”
Gantefoer expects a founding convention for the Saskatchewan Party will be held in November. At that time, the party’s constitution, policy framework and direction, the nature and tinting of the leadership convention and the election of permanent officers will take place. A leadership convention is expected to follow as early as February of 1998.
Though he has not confirmed his intentions, Gantefoer has not dismissed the possibility of running for the leadership of the new party. Former Tory leader Bill Boyd and former Tory MLA Don Toth of Moosomin have also expressed an interest in the possibility of running for party leadership.
Gantefoer expects to make a more definite decision on his future with the party after the founding convention. In the meantime, he will join the other seven party members in touring the province and conducting informational meetings about the Saskatchewan Party. They will kick off their provincial tour with the party’s first meeting tonight in Melfort.
While realizing harvest activities will play a significant role in attendance, Gantefoer simply hopes to answer questions on the new party which is still in its formative stages.
“Hopefully, there will be a good representation of people interested to see what’s happening.”
Editor’s note: Gantefoer would run for the leadership of the new party, against Yogi Huyghebaert and Elwin Hermanson. Hermanson won that race and would win 25 seats in the 1999 election, reducing the New Democrats to a minority government. In 2003, the Saskatchewan Party would win 28 seats and the NDP would win 30. Hermanson resigned and Brad Wall would win the subsequent leadership race in 2004.