Nfld. & Labrador

9 things to know about the Newfoundland and Labrador election

This election that pits the Progressive Conservative government, seeking its fourth consecutive mandate, against a well-oiled Liberal machine and the upstart New Democrats.

A big change is likely tonight, with polls indicating a Liberal landslide

PC Leader Paul Davis, Liberal Leader Dwight Ball and NDP Leader Earle McCurdy have fought for votes in a 25-day election campaign. (CBC)

Voters across Newfoundland and Labrador have started heading to the polls for an election that pits the Progressive Conservative government, seeking its fourth consecutive mandate, against a well-oiled Liberal machine and the upstart New Democrats.

Polls opened at 8 a.m. NT, or 7:30 a.m. in most of Labrador, and will close at 8 p.m. NT. 

The vote will select the 40 members of the House of Assembly and set the political course for the province for the rest of the decade. Here are nine highlights of the contest:

1. No matter who wins, this is a change election

Public opinion polls have consistently put Dwight Ball's Liberals well ahead of Paul Davis and the Progressive Conservatives, to such an extent that even Tory insiders admit their party has been the underdog throughout the 25-day campaign.

Not surprisingly, Ball has hammered home the theme of change. "We know it's time for change," Ball proclaims in election materials, promising lower taxes, a more transparent government and stronger stewardship of government.

But he is not the only leader promoting a change agenda. Even though Davis has been premier for 14 months, he has projected himself as the face of change, going so far as saying during the CBC leaders' debate that voters should not judge him on what the PC government did before he took office — a bold move, given the overwhelming popularity that former premier Danny Williams enjoyed before his abrupt retirement five years ago.

2. N.L. does not change governments often

Voters in Newfoundland and Labrador are generally willing to give a party a good turn at the helm. In fact, since Confederation with Canada in 1949, voters have only turned out a government three times: in 1972, 1989 and 2003.

The length of government tenures has been shrinking. Joey Smallwood's Liberals opened with a 23-year run, followed by Tory rule for the next 17 years. The Liberals governed for 14 years, while the Tories have been in power for the last 12. If Davis wins tonight, he will break that trend.

3. Opposition? What opposition?

Paul Davis, left, Dwight Ball and Earle McCurdy took part in a series of debates during the campaign, including one carried live on CBC. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

Successive public opinion polls over the last two years — and particularly over the last month — suggest not only that a majority Liberal government is poised to take over, but that there could be a small opposition, or maybe even none at all. Some polls suggested such a lopsided Liberal victory that the spectre of a full Liberal sweep was put on the agenda.

Even the most bullish Liberal pundits, though, think a sweep is unlikely. Instead, one of the main outcomes to track tonight will be where the opposition parties can hold their ground.

4. The St. John's vote is key

There will certainly be competitive races in rural districts, but the greatest concentration of two-way and even three-way fights is on the Northeast Avalon Peninsula, where both the Tories and NDP are in the fights of their lives. Both Davis and NDP Leader Earle McCurdy shifted gears during the campaign and called off province-wide tours to focus entirely on campaigns for their own seats and neighbouring candidates.

The St. John's area has historically been a base for the Tories, and in some past elections where overwhelming Liberal majorities had been predicted (such as Brian Tobin's juggernaut campaigns in 1996 and 1999), St. John's residents voted strategically to shore up the opposition.

5. The NDP's future

In 2011, the NDP was just one seat behind the Liberal Party, which formed the Official Opposition. The five-member caucus, though, suffered an implosion around former leader Lorraine Michael, with two MHAs leaving the caucus and later joining the Liberals.

The New Democrats entered this campaign on a dejected note, having lost both St. John's seats in October's federal election. Only two NDP incumbents are seeking re-election, McCurdy, who won the party's leadership in March, is hoping to win his first election.

6. There will be fewer MHAs

The House of Assembly will drop from 48 seats to 40 after this election. (Rob Antle/CBC)

There were 48 seats in the House of Assembly when it dissolved this fall. Tonight 40 politicians will be elected.

The loss of eight seats was the result of a PC-led initiative to reform the legislature. An independent commission led by Supreme Court Justice Robert Stack redrew the district maps, with tweaks later made by the MHAs, who agreed to cut their numbers by a sixth.

Because Labrador's four seats were left untouched, and the population-dense St. John's area lost just one district, the greatest changes are in rural Newfoundland. Districts now are significantly larger, but the overall clout of rural areas will likely be less pronounced when the house reopens for the spring sitting.

7. Many in the cabinet have already left

Since taking over as PC leader and premier in September 2014, Davis has gone to some lengths to rejuvenate a party that is finishing its third consecutive mandate.

But of the other 13 members of his cabinet, only seven are contesting this election. All the others announced their retirements before the writ was dropped, four of them with just weeks to go. 

8. Byelections have tilted to the Liberals

Kathy Dunderdale stepped down as premier in early 2013. The PCs subsequently lost her St. John's seat. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

There have been six byelections since the 2011 general election, and the Liberals have won them all.

In one, they kept a seat they had held. The other five gains are notable because each seat had been held by a high-profile Tory. They include former premiers Kathy Dunderdale and Tom Marshall (who took over the reins on a temporary basis after Dunderdale's exit), and former front-bench cabinet ministers Jerome Kennedy, Joan Shea, Charlene Johnson and Terry French.

9. Billion-dollar headache

After the champagne bubbles pop tonight, another bubble will burst soon for the winner: the harsh fiscal reality for the Newfoundland and Labrador government.

Davis and the Tories posted a spring budget that called for a deficit of $1.18 billion. Remarkably, Ball and the Liberals released a campaign platform that projects an even larger deficit.

Ball has vowed to cancel a pending two-per-cent hike in the harmonized sales tax, and he plans to save money without any direct layoffs. The Liberals' budget plans, though, may change after they review a fiscal update due in December.

About the Author

John Gushue

CBC News

John Gushue is the digital senior producer with CBC News in St. John's.

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