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Back to Blakeney offers a reminder of the efficacy of Big Politics

The Globe and Mail with Melanee Thomas 17 September 2019

 

If democracy in Canada should one day come to an end, how will it die? Certain observers of the global democratic recession worry that the decline of self-rule will lead to hollowed-out institutions and pervasive technocracy – not tanks in the streets or a general at the podium, but unresponsive legislatures alongside unaccountable managers. Others worry about the rise of toxic populism in the authoritarian tradition – rabble-rousing, angry, violent – leading to military hardware and fringed epaulettes as tools of decision making.

Canadian democracy is stable, but vulnerable. We face the climate crisis, an unpredictable and changing global order, income inequality, declining voter turnout and growing distrust of politicians. These challenges are set against the backdrop of a conflicted state caught between a latent impulse to do something for its people and the centrist market orthodoxy that it should do very little of that thing – or, perhaps, the concession that if the state must do something, the technocrats should manage it from top to tail, focus-grouping, data-scraping and, of course, means-testing it along the way.

In Back to Blakeney: Revitalizing the Democratic State (University of Regina Press, 2019) – a series of essays on the late New Democrat premier of Saskatchewan, Allan Blakeney – fifteen writers trace a line from the 1970s to today. Together, the essays take readers through his 11 years as first minister, and the legacy of his successes and shortcomings. Woven through the assembled pieces are potential futures that might be imagined from the vision of an activist state led by a “principled pragmatist.”

In his contribution Is Democracy Compatible with Good Government?, Michael M. Atkinson writes, “Allan Blakeney was one of those social democrats intent on demonstrating that the government could be harnessed to do much more than simply make the world safe for the market economy.” Indeed. Roy Romanow – who served under Blakeney and succeeded him as NDP leader and, later, premier – charts Blakeney’s nationalization of the province’s potash industry in service of a fair return for the people and his creation of the Saskatchewan Oil & Gas Corporation (slogan: “It can be done”). David McGrane discusses Blakeney’s commitment to equality, which was supported by a then-out-of-fashion commitment to Keynesianism at the dawn of the neo-liberal age – which meant public infrastructure spending and higher taxes on corporations to support an expansion of the welfare state.

Other essays mention Blakeney’s creation of the human-rights commission, pursuit of economic diversification, creation of an Advisory Council on the Status of Women alongside a legal framework for pay equity on the basis of gender, modernization of the electoral boundary-setting process, support for treaty rights for Indigenous Peoples, role in patriating the Constitution in 1982 and quest for entrenching positive rights.

Effective as he was, Blakeney wasn’t flawless. Melanee Thomas, in her essay Because It’s 2019, points out “under Blakeney’s leadership, the Saskatchewan New Democratic Party … not only failed to elect a single woman to office but also failed to nominate as many women as the Liberals or Conservatives throughout the 1970s.” She addresses the exclusion of women from government, both as members of the premier’s Cabinet and caucus, and from the agenda all together throughout the late 1970s and into the 1980s.

Katherine Walker, in The Duty to Consult, writes that Blakeney took Indigenous rights seriously – adopting “fundamental democratic practices and principles that aligned with many of the tenets of treaty federalism.” However, while progressive and ahead of his time on the issue, he suffered from colonial blind spots similar to those we see today. For instance, Blakeney negotiated the Treaty Land Entitlement Agreement that resulted in First Nations holdings that “would constitute less than one per cent of land within Saskatchewan, an insufficient amount to support First Nations based upon an agricultural economy.” Progressive – but insufficient.

While Blakeney played a significant role in the Constitution Act of 1982, he opposed the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (and supported Section 33, the Notwithstanding Clause). His opposition to the Charter, as Dwight Newman writes, stemmed from his belief in the power of legislatures. Blakeney “saw more potential in parliaments to protect minorities than those who have pushed for a larger role for the courts.” Judicial power, Newman notes, troubled Blakeney because he believed it would degrade democracy. John D. Whyte adds that Blakeney worried judges would reflect “the values of the privileged” and that “under a regime of entrenched rights, a pattern would emerge of courts applying rights in a manner that favoured those in society who were already favoured and ignore those for whom state protection ought to be more compelling.” Moreover, he was concerned that rights would become fixed, and fail to keep up with changing mores and values. He was mistaken.

Nonetheless, Blakeney leveraged his capacity for governance to deliver a statist vision of inclusion; he transformed his province. In some instances, he was bound by the limits of his time and vision (on gender, for instance); in other instances, he was outright mistaken (on his belief that the Charter would freeze rights, for example). But he believed that trust, fairness, decency and justice were inextricable elements of a good state and, consequently, a good life for its people. In that, he was correct.

In Trust, Taxes, and Democracy in Canada, Alex Himelfarb writes “the unholy duo of tax cuts and austerity is leading many to lose trust that the government is there for them or even that it is capable of achieving much.” He’s right. He cites a cycle of tax cuts, deficits, services cuts, public sphere belt-tightening, and a resulting breakdown of solidarity and perception of state value. He characterizes Blakeney as a leader, who believed that each member of society deserved a fair share and rejected antistate logic.

Back to Blakeney is interesting as an historical assessment of an effectual premier, but it’s particularly attractive as a reminder that Big Politics is a province-building (or nation-building) necessity. The national mood in Canada today shows signs of desire for ambitious programming – the Liberal government’s Canada Child Benefit, the (inadequate, but first-step) carbon tax, discussions on national pharmacare – but after decades of welfare-state retrenchment, Canadians deserve more. Indeed, we might require more if the country is to survive the uncertainty we face from sundry challenges. Politicians today would do themselves and us a service if they went back to Blakeney.

Melanee Thomas is a political science professor at the University of Calgary.