Nfld. & Labrador

Apathy or discontent? 24 hours before election wraps up, here's what people are hearing

"Maybe it's one part anger and one part resignation," says Luke Battcock.

'Maybe it's one part anger and one part resignation,' says Luke Battcock

Luke Battcock says apathy may not be the best word to describe how voters feel this election. (CBC)

With just about 24 hours to go before polls close across Newfoundland and Labrador and voters find out what their next government will look like, one of the key phrases popping up in media coverage has been "voter apathy."

Candidates themselves say they haven't been seeing apathetic people at the doors, and Luke Battcock, chair of the N.L. Student Debate Union, said saying people aren't engaged may not be the best reflection.

"Maybe it's one part anger and one part resignation. I think people just feel resigned to the fate of politics, that we keep getting promised change, and change never comes," Battcock said.

"I think people are angry, but how they voice that anger will be interesting. I think the NL Alliance kind of developed out of a sense of anger and a sense of apathy about how the system works."

Think of our political culture — a lot of it is built around the idea of that fighting Newfoundlander.- Luke Battcock

The NL Alliance was officially declared a party in this election just about a month ago, with Graydon Pelley forming the group to present an alternative option to people not enticed by the Liberals, Progressive Conservatives or New Democrats.

But with just nine NL Alliance candidates on the ballots for Thursday, it's likely government will again be formed by either the red or blue.

"That will be an indicator in this election of how angry are people, how different do people want to see things in this province, how many votes that party gets and how many ballots are spoiled — if even people show up," Battcock said.

Liberal Dwight Ball, Tory Ches Crosbie and New Democrat Alison Coffin, along with Pelley, all present different personas in this election, but Battcock said if people aren't engaged with those leadership options, there are a number of reasons that could contribute.

"Think of our political culture — a lot of it is built around the idea of that fighting Newfoundlander, that we're gonna go out and we're gonna fight Ottawa.… And the PC campaign particularly. Ches Crosbie's very much coming out with that, we need to fight Ottawa, we need to fight Justin Trudeau," Battcock said.

"But Ches Crosbie, he doesn't seem like a fighter, he doesn't seem like that's his nature, and so perhaps he's conforming his nature to what Newfoundlanders demand of our politicians."

What about student debt?

Another problem the public may have is how quickly the election was called, said Bailey Howard, the N.L. chair of the Canadian Federation of Students.

"It's disappointing to see that the election was called with such a short timeline. We're talking to students about what they would like to see within the platforms for the election. We're really not hearing anything on post-secondary education," she said.

That lack of dialogue around post-secondary education is frustrating for Howard, who said student debt is a bigger problem than perhaps people realize.

Bailey Howard says talk about post-secondary education has been missing in this election. (CBC)

"We're seeing students coming out of post-secondary education with more student debt than they've ever had before, which is really unfortunate because people want to get to work and be able to pay off their student loans, and we're hearing from people now who it takes an average of 14 years in Newfoundland and Labrador for people to be able to pay off their student loans," she said.

"That kind of delays everything else that people want to do, like starting a family or buying a house and things like that because they're focused on trying to find a job and be able to pay off those debts.… I think the parties really need to commit to post-secondary education because I think that is the gateway to jobs in this province and I think it's the gateway for bringing more people."

Talk of change, but no results

The status quo isn't going to cut it, said business owner Bob Hallett, who added that people are concerned and engaged in the future of the province — they just aren't hearing solutions or ideas about how to fix it.

Hallett pointed to "the daily debacle of the Muskrat Falls inquiry" as an example of why people may not longer trust politicians.

"Meanwhile, we watch our financial future dance off a cliff, and at the same time you have the Ball government come in talking of change, talking of reform, talking of the way forward, when the reality is, nothing like that is actually happening," he said.

St. John's business owner Bob Hallett says people see through empty campaign promises. (CBC)

"And to top it all, at the end of that, you've got the NDP that's self-destructed and you have Ches Crosbie, who's offering a message that people don't really want to hear."

Hallett said the perception is that the campaign trail promises are hollow, and people don't have faith the parties will follow through.

"Every promise looks completely bogus and the voters are left scratching their heads going, 'Are these people reading the same stuff I am? Where are we gonna get money for a new mental health hospital and a new prison when we can barely afford to pay for what we have now?'" he said

"There's this huge gap between reality and expectation, and I think right now people just would vote for somebody who told them the truth. Even if the outcome was bleak, and they said, we've got to take this horrible medicine now, we've got to drink this Buckley's, but down the road it will be better.'"

Hallett said there are certainly things that can be done to get the province out of its fiscal pickle and get the multibillion-dollar debt sorted out over time, but like dealing with any problem, the first step is always the hardest.

"The first thing we have to do is accept that we have a problem," he said.

"We've all run out of rope and we need to be smarter, we need to be realistic and we need to stop pretending that this province is gonna somehow work itself out."

Undecided to decided

Meanwhile, candidates are lacing up their shoes and getting their teams out the door to continue campaigning right up until the last possible second.

Jonathan Galgay, the PC candidate for St. John's Centre, said he personally will be driving people to the polls, if they ask.

"Some residents have asked that I actually go and pick them up tomorrow and bring them to the polling station, particularly in my old neighbourhood on Hamilton Avenue," he said.

Jonathan Galgay is the Progressive Conservative candidate for St. John's Centre. (CBC)

"We continue to meet as many people as we can, we engage them on issues. We notice people are calling now to let us know how they're feeling about the election. We're seeing a lot of undecideds now making up their minds."

Galgay, who previously served on St. John's city council, said he's comfortable with the campaign he's run, and said the people he's met at the door seem to be engaged and full of questions about exactly what he, and other candidates, stand for.

"There are a lot of people who are still undecided. However, we are noticing over the past number of days or so, they are starting to open up a little. They have received all of the materials from candidates and they're getting ready to vote and people are very anxious about it," he said.

"Tomorrow is going to be an anxious day, but as you go though election process it's very humbling to meet people who oftentimes may not know you who are very open to trusting you."

'I don't see it'

And for seasoned politician Gerry Byrne, the incumbent Liberal in the Corner Brook district, the idea of voter apathy is a non-starter.

"I don't see it. I actually see a very, very excited, energized electorate here in Corner Brook. It's amazing, really," he said.

"This is my ninth general election and I've been in politics and public life for 23 years, and we are flat out. Not only talking with constituents, talking about ideas, talking about new things that need to happen."

Gerry Byrne is the incumbent Liberal candidate in Corner Brook. (Katie Breen/CBC)

This election has a different vibe than previous ones, Byrne said, with what he called "push polling," referring to phone call campaigns by a group called NL Strong.

Byrne said campaigns like that are reasons he doesn't put a lot of faith in poll results.

"It's not right. It's ethically challenged, at best," Byrne said.

"And people are, because of this activity, people are not responding to legitimate polling activity, as well."

In the meantime, on the last day before polls open, Byrne said all his efforts are on getting people engaged and to head out to the polls.

"We always want and we encourage the electorate, the voters, to exercise your franchise, no matter who you want to vote for. The most important thing that has to occur on May 16 is that people exercise their right to vote," he said.

"There have been instances in the past number of years, the past number of elections, where voter turnout has gone down. We need to correct that. That's important. But to chalk that up to voter apathy being stronger in this election, we're not seeing it."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Chris O'Neill-Yates, Katie Breen and Garrett Barry

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