Election three years in the making
It’s taken Roger Grimes more than 30 months to call an election, even though a campaign has been simmering on the back burner since he became Liberal party leader during a snow storm in 2001. At the time, Grimes made one thing clear: he and the Liberals would serve out the term they were elected to under Brian Tobin's leadership in 1999.
The new premier rejected Opposition demands for an election to legitimize his government. Tom Rideout had called a snap election in 1989, when he took over as premier from Brian Peckford. The Tories have been out of power ever since.
Grimes needed time to consolidate his political base after a bitter leadership race. He had beaten John Efford by just 14 votes on the second ballot.
Efford refused to serve as a cabinet minister, in part because Grimes refused to allow him to keep his campaign manager, Danny Dumaresque, on staff. In the spring of 2002 Efford left provincial politics to take over the federal riding abandoned by Brian Tobin.
The third leadership candidate, Paul Dicks, quit politics, making no secret of his inability to work with Grimes.
In August of this year, Grimes made a public display of trying to end two of those feuds when he appointed Dicks and Dumaresque to the board of Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro.
As premier, Grimes set out to implement the platform he had used in the leadership race:
The Progressive Conservatives say Grimes has held off calling
an election because he knows he can't win. PC Leader Danny Williams
has been consistently ahead of Grimes in public opinion polls
over the past year. The latest Corporate Research Associates poll
conducted in August showed a wider gap.
On the byelection front, the Tories have won four of six since 1999.
At dissolution, there were 27 Liberals, 19 Tories and two New Democrats in the 48-seat House of Assembly.
The Conservatives had 46 of their candidates in place by mid-September, and they've actively recruited high-profile candidates to take on the Liberals.
The PC list includes:
The Liberals were hunting for a half dozen candidates up to the eve of the election call; however, the party had all 48 candidates in place when the writ was dropped. Seven MHAs, including six recent cabinet ministers, aren’t running again.
The Liberals will campaign on what they call a solid record. They say the Newfoundland and Labrador economy has prospered in the past decade. Thanks to offshore oil production, the province has led the country in economic growth. Employment levels are up, but at 17 per cent, the jobless rate remains the highest in Canada.
The PCs counter by pointing out median incomes have dropped in Newfoundland and Labrador more than they have in other provinces, and the child poverty rate has increased.
Province's population decline continues
The provincial population dropped almost 10 per cent between the 1991 and 2001 censuses. Rural Newfoundland has been hit the hardest, as people thrown out of work by the groundfish moratorium looked for work elsewhere. The PCs blame the Liberals for failing to stop the flood of outmigration.
Inside the province, the gap between the urban northeast Avalon Peninsula and the rest of the province has grown. Most of the economic benefits from the oil industry are concentrated in the Avalon region. Its unemployment rate is less than 10 per cent, and its population drop is hardly noticeable.
Newfoundland and Labrador’s economy depends on natural resources, and the management of those resources will be an election issue.
Grimes was able to negotiate an agreement with Inco to develop the Voisey's Bay nickel mine in northern Labrador. But he backed away from the hard line Tobin had taken, and allowed Inco to process nickel outside the province during the initial years of the mine.
The PCs have condemned the agreement, saying it leaves too many loopholes for Inco. Aside from Fabian Manning, whose district includes the site of a test processing plant in Argentia, the Tory caucus voted against the Voisey's Bay deal.
Lower Churchill talks remain on hold
Development of the hydroelectric potential of the Lower Churchill River has been another flash point in provincial politics. Last fall, the Liberals announced they had reached a framework agreement with Quebec for the $4-billion project.
The PCs accused the government of rushing to sign a deal that would hurt the province's interests.
By year's end, the deal had fallen apart, in large part because two members of the board of directors of Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro resigned in protest against the deal. One of them, Dean MacDonald, is a longtime business associate of Williams.
The spring sitting ended with the Liberals, Conservatives and New Democrats unanimously supporting a call for a constitutional amendment that would create joint federal-provincial management of the fisheries.
Grimes denied he was using the closure of the cod fisheries as an excuse to call an election, but his call to have the Terms of Union renegotiated attracted a swarm of national media attention. Grimes later had to admit there was little support outside Newfoundland and Labrador for reopening the Constitution. Instead the province and Ottawa agreed to look at ways of rebuilding cod stocks.
The Conservatives also blame the Liberals for being financially irresponsible in running the government. The latest budget forecasts a deficit of $287 million this year. The Opposition says the Liberals are putting the province further in debt by trying to buy votes.
The government called the budget an "education budget," one in which tuition rates were being cut for the third year in a row. The Tories point out tuition rose by 350 per cent during the Liberals' first decade in office.
PCs keep platform for election release
In the House of Assembly, the Liberals focused their pre-election campaigning by constantly calling on the Conservatives to unveil their own policies. Ministers responded to questions in the House by attacking the failure of the Conservatives to present their plans.
PC Leader Danny Williams has kept most of his election platform under wraps. He says the Liberals would want to steal the ideas if he released them in advance.
The Liberal attacks focused on Williams, a millionaire lawyer and former owner of Cable Atlantic. They filed complaints with the Chief Electoral Officer about a loan Williams made to the PC party and use of a motor vehicle registered to one of his companies during byelections.
Auto insurance late addition to agenda
During the summer, an issue that dominated provincial elections
PC Leader Danny Williams and NDP Leader Jack Harris (both lawyers) came up with their own proposals, but were quick to accuse the Liberals of using the issue for purely election purposes. The Liberals toyed with the idea of recalling the House of Assembly to debate an insurance bill, but backed away in the wake of the latest CRA poll that showed falling public support for Grimes and the party.