Changing governments has been all the rage for the past year, with every provincial election since June — all five of them — seeing the incumbents put out of power.
On Thursday, Newfoundland and Labrador will decide whether to give Liberal Dwight Ball a second term — or gamble on Progressive Conservative Ches Crosbie, a political rookie with a Tory-blue pedigree.
Ball went into the campaign with a bit of a swagger — and plenty of advantages. He had a full slate, more money in the bank and the element of relative surprise: ignoring fixed-date legislation that had the vote pegged in the fall, he pushed the button shortly before Easter, leaving the other parties scrambling to put names on nomination parties. (The NDP, with just 14 candidates in 40 districts, is fielding its smallest contingent since 1972.)
But public opinion polls have shown that Ball is not only not that popular, but many voters have shifted their allegiances to the Tory camp. An Abacus Data poll taken after the only televised debate gave the Tories a five-point lead over the Liberals, while a subsequent Forum Research poll put the Liberals and Tories in a dead heat.
Ball and the Liberals must also have their eye on the national trend, because it’s clear that many Canadians have been fed up with governing parties, of all stripes.
It happened most recently in Prince Edward Island, where last month the Liberal government of Wade MacLauchlan was ousted and reduced to six seats.
In Quebec last October, the upstart Coalition Avenir Québec unseated the Liberal party, in a stunning upset that had immediate ripple effects in federal politics.
In New Brunswick, a remarkably tight result in September’s election saw Liberal Premier Brian Gallant try to salvage a minority government. By November, Tory Blaine Higgs was sworn in as premier, and is now holding a minority government together.
One of the biggest disruptions in provincial elections came last June in Ontario, when Doug Ford led the Tories to a dramatic defeat of an exhausted Liberal Party.
That’s five governments in a row — four of them Liberal — that have been ousted at the ballot box.
Will incumbency hurt or help?
As a sign of a party that is still vibrant, Newfoundland and Labrador’s Liberals had no trouble finding candidates.
In fact, all 27 members of the governing Liberal caucus are running again. Not a single one retired.
In many elections, that kind of incumbency — and the name recognition that comes with it — is a powerful asset.
It’s also worth noting that Newfoundland and Labrador voters don’t change governments very often. Since Confederation with Canada in 1949, it’s happened just four times. Governing parties have been given long runs, the shortest being 12 years.
But what happens if the anti-incumbent sentiment seen across the country plays out strongly on Thursday?
Newfoundland and Labrador has never ousted a party after one term in office. But Crosbie, a well-known lawyer and the son of former federal and provincial cabinet minister John Crosbie, is hoping to change history.
Crosbie has an uphill battle. The PCs he now leads were drummed out of office sharply just four years ago, and Crosbie has been the first in line to proclaim the party is different.
“I am a new broom — a new leader, and new management,” he quipped during the May 1 televised leaders’ debate, putting distance between himself and the PC government that sanctioned the $12.5-billion Muskrat Falls megaproject, which is massively over budget and the subject of a judicial inquiry that reminds voters regularly of the former government’s decisions and apparent lack of critical thinking.
Eager to escape megaproject blame
Crosbie has pleaded with voters not to play what he calls “the blame game,” but he has other problems on his plate.
One is money.
Elections Newfoundland and Labrador reported last month that the Tories started the year with just $14,947 in the bank, a fraction of what the Liberals held. The report also showed that the Liberals dramatically outpaced the PCs last year in fundraising, with $835,000 against $107,180.
Another, more intangible problem facing Crosbie: motivating people to vote at all. N.L. scored a record-low turnout in 2015, with just 55.2 per cent of eligible adults showing up to the polls. Many observers have expressed fears the turnout this year will be even lower.
The NDP is also struggling in this campaign, not just for visibility but also survival.
Both New Democrat incumbents are retiring, and NDP Leader Alison Coffin only took over the party reins in March on the heels of the resignation of Gerry Rogers. Coffin, an economist who has taught at Memorial University, is hoping to hold what’s been an NDP stronghold in St. John’s, where almost all of the NDP’s efforts are based.
There’s a new party in the mix, too. The NL Alliance — founded by former PC party president Graydon Pelley — was certified just days before the writ issued. It has a slate of seven candidates. The NL Alliance is emphasizing a slate of democratic reforms, including open votes in the House of Assembly.
The Greens, meanwhile, are not on the ballots at all. The party said it did not have enough time — or money — to get organized.
Shoring up support
Crosbie is campaigning on a platform that emphasizes lower taxes, affordable energy rates once Muskrat Falls comes onstream, and greater accountability from politicians, including recall legislation.
In the closing days of the campaign, Ball — a 61-year-old former pharmacist who has been leading the Liberals since 2013 — has been turning his attention to shoring up support for caucus members as well as other candidates where the Liberals hope to make a gain.
Ball ran on a platform four years ago that emphasized tax relief and public services. Yet he had little choice but to bring in a draconian budget that hiked fees and trimmed services. He clearly disliked the tough-medicine approach; subsequent budgets have presented a more optimistic outlook, even with massive deficits.
This year, the party posted a surplus in name only, of almost $1.9 billion. Accounting rules meant that a multi-decade deal with the federal Liberals on a refreshed Atlantic Accord (the binding agreement that recognizes N.L. as the principal beneficiary of the offshore oil industry) were all reflected in the current fiscal year.
The new deal on the Atlantic Accord was reached just before the election was called. Interestingly, it was key to the Ball Liberals to win the favour of the Trudeau Liberals in Ottawa.But in the heat of the campaign — even in a province where all seven federal seats are Liberal — there’s evidence that the once-potent allure of Justin Trudeau may have significantly faded.
Thursday’s vote, in other words, will — one way or the other — pose implications for the federal campaign leading to an October election that draws ever closer.