Nfld. & Labrador·Analysis

A stupendous shift in Newfoundland and Labrador politics: How did we get here?

All the signs point to a dramatic shakeup on the Newfoundland and Labrador political scene, with the long-suffering Liberal Party all but assured of a convincing victory in Monday's provincial election.

After 12 years of Tory dominance, long-suffering Liberals poised to take power

The three party leaders vying to become Newfoundland and Labrador's next premier include, from left, NDP Leader Earle McCurdy, Progressive Conservative Leader Paul Davis and Liberal Leader Dwight Ball. (CBC)

All the signs point to a dramatic shakeup on the Newfoundland and Labrador political scene, with the long-suffering Liberal Party all but assured of a convincing victory in Monday's provincial election. 

Repeated polls have placed the Liberals in the upper stratosphere of popular opinion, revealing an electorate that appears anxious for change in the traditional cycle of power in the House of Assembly.

It's the Liberals' turn, it seems, to govern.

It's all in stark contrast to just four years ago, when the Liberals eked out Opposition status, and the man now poised to become premier struggled to simply get elected. 

Some of the biggest questions waiting to be answered on election night are whether the Grits, led by west coast businessman Dwight Ball, can sweep all 40 electoral districts, how much of the Progressive Conservative machine will be left standing, and whether the New Democratic Party, the perennial third-place finisher, can finally win enough seats to form the Official Opposition.

There's even a real possibility that two party leaders could lose, according to recent district-level polls.

Both PC Leader Paul Davis, the former police constable and the cancer survivor who became premier just 14 months ago, and NDP Leader Earle McCurdy, a retired fisheries union president looking to earn his first seat in the legislature, are in tough battles for political survival.

It's hard to imagine such questions being asked just a few years ago, with the Tories holding a firm grip on power and the Liberals slowly rebuilding from some of the darkest days in the party's long and storied history in Canada's most easterly province.

The Danny Williams era is long gone

So, how did we get here?

Why have the PCs fallen from grace, while the Liberals appear ready to bulldoze their way back into power after more than a decade on the sidelines?

Danny Williams arrives at the Confederation Building in St. John's on Dec. 3, 2010 to begin his final day as the ninth premier of Newfoundland and Labrador. (Paul Daly/Canadian Press)

A lot has happened since Danny Williams, the feisty and flashy lawyer and businessman, unexpectedly stepped down as the province's ninth — and some would argue most popular — premier five years ago this month.

Williams and the PCs stormed to power in 2003, ending the Liberals' 14-year hold on government.

It was a tumultuous time, and like today, the electorate was thirsty for change.

The left's long-held dictum that Tory times are hard times initially proved true, with Williams taking severe measures to control spending.

Money flew like a gusher

But then oil money started to flow like a gusher, and the mining industry also took off. On top of that, thousands of residents benefited from fly in-fly out jobs in the Alberta oilsands.

Williams oversaw an unimaginable level of economic growth during his seven years at the helm, including the shedding of the much-hated "have-not" label. Newfoundland and Labrador stopped receiving equalization payments in 2008. 

The Terra Nova platform is one of three producing oilfields in offshore Newfoundland and Labrador. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

There were surplus budgets, record job growth and spending, and unprecedented confidence and optimism.

Williams was rewarded with a landslide victory in 2007, with the PCs winning all but four seats and taking nearly 70 per cent of the popular vote.

The Liberals? Reduced to just three seats.

Williams made national headlines with his heated battles with successive prime ministers, and there were massive deals in the oil and gas and mining sectors, including an ownership stake for the province in projects such as the Hebron offshore oil field.

Then, in late 2010, Williams announced that the Lower Churchill Project would become a reality. A few weeks later, he shocked the entire province by announcing his resignation.

Not an immediate tumble 

The Tory tumble wasn't immediate, however. His successor, Kathy Dunderdale, led the PCs to a third massive majority victory in 2011, and Liberal support actually fell to its lowest point in history.

But it was soon obvious the Tory blue sheen was wearing thin, and most observers agree that Williams' departure was a turning point for the party.

Kathy Dunderdale announces her resignation as the 10th premier of Newfoundland and Labrador in January 2014. (CBC)

The government's popularity started plunging even before the 2011 election, and a series of debacles, including the controversial Bill 29, which ushered in tighter restrictions on access to information laws, fed into a growing sentiment that the Tories were becoming increasingly arrogant.

A series of extended province-wide power blackouts during an especially cold period in January 2014 that became known as #darknl, two high-profile defections to the Liberals, and a half-dozen byelection losses further eroded support for the PCs.

There was a dramatic leadership vacuum, a controversy over a cancelled paving contract and a steady parade of high-profile cabinet ministers making their way to the exit, knowing the good ship SS Tory was heading for stormy seas.

Darin King was one of a series of senior PC cabinet ministers to announce in the months before the election that he was retiring from politics. (CBC)

And it hasn't helped that last year's collapse in oil prices has crippled the province's economy, with the political debate now focused on issues such as job reductions, spending cuts and ballooning deficits.

Davis took over as leader of a party that had fallen from grace, and despite what many say is a noticeable maturing of his leadership style and solid performances in a series of debates, he's been unable to reverse the Liberal tide.

And let's not forget there's still a bright political afterglow from the recent majority win by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal team.

In political terms, it's been a perfect storm for a government that many view as long in the tooth.

It's hard to imagine any dental sedative that will make this political extraction any easier to swallow for the PCs.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Terry Roberts is a reporter with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador, and is based in St. John’s. He previously worked for The Telegram, The Compass and The Northern Pen newspapers during a career that began in 1991. He can be reached by email at: Terry.Roberts@cbc.ca.

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