Students will learn about the process and history of Saskatchewan’s provincial elections.
Teacher's Background Information: Electing Governments in Saskatchewan
Saskatchewan’s system of government is based on the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy, which we inherited from the United Kingdom. This system tends to rely upon political parties. Political parties are voluntary associations of people with similar political views. Political parties and the party leaders—as opposed to individual candidates—are strong motivators for how people cast ballots. One public opinion poll from 2015 found that when people make voting decisions,
• 51% are most strongly motivated by a party’s stance on issues
• 33% are most strongly motivated by the party leader
• 16% are most strongly motivated by the local candidate
The strong influence of political parties and their leaders helps explain why independent candidates with no party affiliation rarely get elected to the legislature.
NOMINATING CANDIDATES FOR ELECTION
Candidates for office generally hold the views of the political party they represent. Sometimes the party will appoint a candidate to their liking. Most often though, party members in each constituency hold a nomination contest to decide who will be their candidate.
When somebody wants to run for a party nomination, the party will vet them. This helps ensure that potential candidates reflect the party’s values. Vetting decisions mostly happen behind closed doors. If the party rejects a candidate, they cannot compete in the party’s nomination process. The rejection of potential candidates is not an everyday occurrence, but it is not uncommon either.
Occasionally, a candidate will be allowed to run, win the nomination, and then be rejected by the party. For example, in 2003 the Saskatchewan Party rejected the nomination of Grant Schmidt.
Grant Schmidt was an outspoken minister in Grant Devine’s Progressive Conservative government of the 1980s. In 1991, Schmidt lost his bid for re-election and returned to practising law in Melville. In 2003, he decided to make a political comeback. Schmidt ran for and won the Saskatchewan Party nomination in the Melville-Saltcoats constituency. The party, however, refused to endorse his candidacy. They said he supported policies that were not those of the Saskatchewan Party. A second nomination contest was held, and Schmidt was not allowed to take part.
Even if a candidate is rejected by a party, they still have the right to run for office as an independent candidate. Schmidt chose to run as an independent in the 2003 general election. Reflecting how difficult elections are for independents, Schmidt came in third. He received 19% of the vote, behind the Saskatchewan Party candidate (39%) and the NDP candidate (32%.)
To run as either an independent or party-affiliated candidate in a provincial election, a person must be a Canadian citizen 18 years of age or older, and have lived in Saskatchewan for six months prior to the election. The candidate must submit nomination papers signed by four voters, and have it witnessed by a fifth voter. As well, a $100 deposit is required.
TRIGGERING AN ELECTION
Saskatchewan has fixed election legislation. Elections are scheduled every four years, on the last Monday in October. To begin the election, the premier must ask the Lieutenant Governor to dissolve the legislature and “drop the writ.”
Elections can be triggered by other means. For example, some votes in the legislature function as an endorsement of the legitimacy of the government. These are called confidence votes. Confidence votes typically include votes on throne speeches, budgets, major changes to the law, and most bills that involve spending money. If a government loses a confidence vote, it loses its right to hold power.
Generally speaking, if the government loses a confidence vote one of two things will happen. Either the government will resign and the Lieutenant Governor will ask another party or coalition of parties to form a new government. Or, the Lieutenant Governor can dissolve the legislature and then call a general election.
The Lieutenant Governor must ensure an executive branch of government is always in place. Thus, the premier and ministers keep their ministerial jobs during an election. However, the caretaker convention limits executive powers to routine and non-controversial tasks, or urgent tasks in an emergency. Their power is limited because during an election there is no legislature in place to hold the executive to account.
ELECTING MEMBERS TO THE LEGISLATURE
Voters from each of the province’s electoral constituencies cast ballots for a member of the legislative assembly. The number of MLAs and constituency sizes and boundaries are determined through a combination of provincial legislation and an independent commission. In Saskatchewan’s first provincial election, there were 25 constituencies, but for most of the province’s history there have been about 60. Controversial changes in 1991 that were fought all the way to the Supreme Court increased the seats to an all-time high of 66. Today, we have 61 electoral constituencies.
For political parties, the optimal goal in an election is to form a majority government. A majority government is when more than half of the seats are won by a single political party. If a single party has a majority, they do not need to rely on votes from other parties’ MLAs to get their bills through the legislature. Minority governments, on the other hand, require the support of MLAs who are not in the governing party.
Even though Saskatchewan has 61 MLAs, the legislative chamber can accommodate 125. Saskatchewan was growing exponentially when construction of the legislature began in 1908. Then-premier Walter Scott envisioned a province that would be home to millions of people, and had the legislature designed accordingly.
FORMING A GOVERNMENT
Regardless of the result of an election, the premier in power prior to the writ being dropped remains in power. They have the first opportunity to demonstrate to the Lieutenant Governor that they can gain the support of the legislature. In fact, technically whoever is appointed premier by the Lieutenant Governor could remain in that role until resignation, death, or being advised by the Lieutenant Governor that they no longer require the premier’s advice (the constitutional way of saying the Lieutenant Governor fired the premier). In practice, if the governing party loses the premier usually resigns and the Lieutenant Governor invites the party with the most seats in the legislature to form a new government.
Choosing a government becomes more complicated for the Lieutenant Governor if no party emerges from an election with a clear majority. A minority situation will unfold. To determine who forms government, the Lieutenant Governor must be satisfied that a party can provide stable government. Making this determination can be complex.
For example, consider if the governing party emerges from an election with the most seats in a minority situation, but a coalition of other parties say they want to form a government. The governing party could argue to the Lieutenant Governor that they have the first right to try and form a stable government. This happened in 1929. For the election, the Conservatives entered into a non-competition agreement with the Progressives, and supported several independent candidates. The election resulted in the governing Liberals winning the most seats, at 28. However, forces opposed to the Liberals won 35 seats (24 Conservatives, five Progressives, and six independents).
Five days after the election, the Conservatives, Progressives, and independent MLAs signed an agreement supporting a Conservative-led “Co-operative” government. They called for the Liberals to resign. However, the Liberals believed they could hang on to power by driving a wedge between the Conservatives and their allies. The Lieutenant Governor agreed that the Liberals should have the opportunity to win the confidence of the legislature. In September, the legislature convened and the Liberals fell in a confidence vote. The Lieutenant Governor then asked the Conservative Party and its allies to form a government. Lest we think this example is too old to be relevant today, an almost-identical situation unfolded following British Columbia’s 2017 provincial election.
Saskatchewan saw another minority situation unfold in 1999, albeit this was less complicated. The NDP won 29 out of 58 seats. The Saskatchewan Party took 25 seats, and the Liberals won four. Within days, the NDP made an agreement with the four Liberal MLAs to form a coalition government, thus ensuring a stable majority government.
Because the governing party has the first right to form a government, it is also possible for a government to remain in power even if they lose an election outright. This scenario unfolded at the federal level in 1925. William Lyon Mackenzie King’s governing Liberals won 100 seats, coming in second to Arthur Meighen’s Conservatives who won 115. The Progressive Party won 22 seats. Instead of resigning, King told the Governor General he would like to meet Parliament and let them decide. King gained the support of the Progressives, and remained Prime Minister until the Progressives withdrew their support in June 1926.
While it is common to hear people say that “the party that wins the most seats should form government,” these examples show that our system of government is more nuanced. Forming a government relies upon gaining the support of a majority of members of the legislature, and the party in power before the election has the first opportunity to prove they can command majority support in the legislature.
1. Use the overhead Nominating Candidates for Election to explain how the slate of candidates is formed for an election.
2. Use the overhead Triggering an Election to explain how elections begin, then assign The Fix is In? Fixed Election Dates to consider the merits and drawbacks of fixed election date legislation.
3. Use the overhead Forming a Government to explain possible outcomes from elections, then assign Thinking About Forming a Government for discussion or independent student work.
4. To build student understandings of the history of Saskatchewan elections, use Saskatchewan Elections: A History in conjunction with Saskatchewan Elections Crossword.
5. Saskatchewan Elections: A History can be a launch point for researching a political party, government, politician, or election in Saskatchewan’s history. One excellent secondary resource is the CBC Archives feature Showdown on the Prairies–A History of Saskatchewan Elections.
6. To better understand the concept of dropping the writ, check out “King George had sent out a writ”: When an Election is Called in Canada“ in Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town: The Learning Resource.
7. Government House, the office of Saskatchewan’s Lieutenant Governor, has several education programs and resources that help explain the Crown’s role in governing Saskatchewan.