A winter election amid a pandemic? Bring it on, say N.L. opposition parties
Premier Andrew Furey won't confirm it, but chatter about a February voting day is growing
There's growing evidence that a provincial election campaign — one clouded by an ongoing pandemic, and as such unlike any we've ever seen — could dominate the political landscape in Newfoundland and Labrador this winter.
There's been a flurry of nominations as all three major parties look to assemble a stable of candidates in the 40 electoral districts. Fundraising efforts are in high gear at a time when many businesses and individuals are struggling, and both the governing Liberals and the opposition Progressive Conservatives have released slick campaign-style ads spotlighting their leaders and their visions for the province.
There's also growing chatter about when Premier Andrew Furey will call an election, with some political soothsayers saying voters should expect to elect a new government as early as Feb. 13, which would require Furey to visit Lt.-Gov. Judy Foote in the coming days and ask for the House of Assembly to be dissolved.
If Furey pulls the trigger on a February vote, it would be the first winter election in Newfoundland and Labrador since former Liberal premier Brian Tobin did it not once, but twice, in the 1990s.
The pandemic campaign template has been set
Furey, who took over a minority government last summer after succeeding former premier Dwight Ball as Liberal leader, is not tipping his hand just yet, telling CBC News last month that an election will "happen in 2021."
But PC Leader Ches Crosbie expects an election call "will probably come before the middle of January."
If so, what will an election campaign look like at a time when physical distancing is being preached by health officials to prevent the spread of COVID-19?
And in the height of winter when the threat of snowstorms could derail even the most organized campaign?
The template for such a campaign has already been established, with Andrew Furey winning both the Liberal party leadership last summer and a byelection in Humber-Gros Morne in October.
Three provinces — Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and British Columbia — have already sent voters to the polls since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020.
Strategists say virtual campaigning will likely be emphasized, with carefully planned visits to communities replacing large rallies and door-to-door canvassing.
Voters concerned about in-person voting can expect to be showered with reminders about special ballot kits, which allow people to cast their vote through the mail.
"We're going to be looking at what the guidance is from Elections NL and public health and making sure we're carrying out a general election that's in compliance with all the public health guidelines," said Megan Reynolds, who co-chaired Furey's leadership campaign and took over as party president in August..
Neither the Liberals nor the Tories are saying whether the traditional campaign bus — emblazoned with party logos and the face of the leader — will be part of any provincial tour, but the PC Party's 2021 campaign chair, Shawn Skinner, said the electorate should expect to see a campaign that "will not be as elaborate."
Skinner said raising money has been a challenge, and as such, "we'll be watching the pennies."
Furey wants a majority
Furey's obviously hoping for a repeat of recent outcomes in New Brunswick and British Columbia, where the leaders of minority governments called an election during the pandemic and were awarded with majorities.
A public opinion poll released in December suggested support for the Liberals has climbed significantly since the onset of the pandemic, with Newfoundland and Labrador consistently reporting among the lowest infection rates in the country.
But Crosbie is asking people to take a closer look at the four-plus months Furey has been at the helm.
"What's he achieved so far?" Crosbie asked. "As well, you could ask yourself, what's he told us about what he wants to achieve in the future? All this remains mysterious."
A pivotal election
Crosbie would prefer the Liberals wait to call an election until after a much-anticipated final report from the premier's economic recovery team is completed this spring, and a new budget is unveiled in response to that report.
But, he added, "If [Furey] wants to call the election in the middle of winter, then we're certainly ready to step up to the plate and fight it out with him."
With the province in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has aggravated an existing financial crisis, some say this will be the most important election since citizens voted to join Confederation in 1948.
The province is forecasting a $1.8-billion deficit this year, and a record net debt of $16.4 billion and climbing.
Revenues are being gutted by uncertainty in the oil markets, many workers and businesses are being sustained through an infusion of emergency cash from Ottawa, and uncertainty remains about how electricity rates will be affected by the long-delayed and over-budget Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project.
Many predict some tough measures from the next government in order address the province's financial challenges, with the Liberals promising "bigger, bolder solutions to address long-standing structural issues" in Finance Minister Siobhan Coady's budget speech in September.
Observers say Furey is keen to face those challenges with a majority government, and fill out his bench before Moya Green, who chairs the economic recovery team, delivers her report in April.
"He does not want to go to polls with a report that says 'strip 25 per cent of the public service,' or something drastic like that," said one political watcher.
The only thing certain from a political standpoint is that there will be a general election by Aug. 19, which will mark the anniversary of Furey being sworn in as premier.
NDP 'more ready' than ever before
Provincial law requires that an election be called within a year of a new premier taking office, but there's nothing stopping Furey from going to the polls sooner, and the Liberals say they're ready for whenever their leader makes the call.
"We hit the ground running from the get-go," said Reynolds.
The New Democrats, with three elected members, are prepared to run a "comprehensive, provincewide and sophisticated campaign," said acting NDP president and campaign chair Kyle Rees.
Rees said the party intends to run a full slate of 40 candidates, and is "more ready for an election, if necessary, than they've ever been."