Nfld. & Labrador·Analysis

Risk-averse Liberal platform avoids past errors but has potential future peril

With a week to go before voting day, leader Andrew Furey seems determined to not repeat the campaign mistakes of the past that hamstrung his predecessor. But he runs the risk of missing a chance to build public support by using his campaign to make the argument for serious change. 

Party hopes safe strategy will lead to majority, but it may make sweeping changes a tougher sell

Liberal Leader Andrew Furey speaks with reporters after releasing his party's campaign platform Thursday afternoon. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

The Liberal Party selected Andrew Furey to replace Dwight Ball with the hopes that he would lead them back to the promised land of a majority government.

Now, with a week to go before voting day, Furey seems determined to not repeat the campaign mistakes that hamstrung Ball in the early days of his premiership.

Just over five years ago, while ahead in the polls, Ball made specific voter-friendly platform pledges that later blew up when he took the reins of power and had to confront the grim reality of governing. 

Anger over broken promises dogged his first term in office. Most notable, perhaps, was a whiplash-inducing rollback of a plan to cut the HST.

Ball's government failed to win a majority when it sought re-election — the only time since Confederation that's ever happened to a first-term administration.

Fast-forward to today, and the co-chair of Ball's 2015 campaign may have learned some lessons from that experience.

Furey has since moved from behind the scenes to centre stage, as Liberal leader. He is also ahead in the polls. But his approach to laying out a policy platform is markedly different from his predecessor.

Red book launched 9 days before election day

Furey unveiled his red book on Thursday afternoon, just nine days before election day and after tens of thousands of voters had already requested early ballots.

It mostly revisited ideas already laid out in prior daily campaign appearances.

Furey's platform is clearly designed to avoid becoming a flashpoint that could rob him of a majority. 

But he runs the risk, should the future choices prove difficult and unpopular, of having missed the chance to build public support by using his campaign to make the argument for serious change. 

The Liberal Party released its costed platform Thursday, nine days before voting day. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

Before the platform launch, the most memorable concrete Liberal policy pledges included a plan to provide free access to period products in schools and to hold a post-pandemic "Come Home Year" in 2022.

Asked by a reporter Thursday if there was anything new he would like to highlight in the campaign document, Furey pointed to "talking about opening up opportunities for an exercise tax credit" and a "Newfoundland-first jobs policy" for government infrastructure projects.

Furey's platform does not swing for the fences, with grand-slam big-ticket policy commitments.

Instead, it moves runners slowly around the bases — a bunt single here, a walk there — promising consultation and consideration, with the aim of not striking out.

Iterations of the word "support" are used 73 times, "grow" 66 times, and "work with" 14 more.

Furey leaves Government House on the afternoon of Jan. 15, the day of the provincial election call. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

As for when there will be action on platform commitments, the ultimate deadline is a ways down the road — 2025, in the event of a full-term majority government.

"All commitments made in this plan will be introduced during the next term in office, with most initiatives being launched in this year's budget process," the red book advises.

Of the 49 Liberal commitments, the party says 34 of them will be entirely funded by an alphabet soup of acronyms — RS, EBE, CN — that basically mean no new money will be required. Instead the cash will come from reinvested savings, existing budget envelopes, or be cost-neutral.

Key inflection point for province

All this, at a key inflection point for the province, with two divergent paths ahead — recovery, or receivership.

Just 10 months ago, Furey's predecessor wrote the prime minister to say Newfoundland and Labrador was "out of time." 

The province couldn't borrow the money it needed in the face of a public-health crisis, and was on track to run out of cash within weeks.

The Bank of Canada stepped in with a program to help, in the tense early days before lending markets normalized.

In the months since then, there has been more assistance from Ottawa — a $320-million provincially administered pot of cash to help the cratering local oil industry bridge its economic challenges, an $844-million deferral on Muskrat Falls-related payments. And there are high-level bilateral talks on finding a longer-term solution to the Lower Churchill conundrum.

But the province still faces a financial Everest to climb. Newfoundland and Labrador will borrow a staggering $3 billion this fiscal year.

Furey has made the pitch that he is the best choice to deal with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and criticized PC Leader Ches Crosbie for musing about the merits of leveraging the spectre of bankruptcy in negotiations with Ottawa.

But the overarching existential and structural problems facing the province are not explored in depth in the Liberal platform.

The section on ensuring a sustainable future for Newfoundland and Labrador — referencing the pending Greene Report and the immediate fiscal challenges — is actually shorter than the description of the plan to provide free menstrual products in schools.

It could have been done differently.

Clyde Wells won the 1993 provincial election after years of frank talk about the province's financial woes — tough words accompanied by tough action.

The political merits and success of Furey's approach will be determined by voters a week from today.

If he wins a majority, it will be harder to criticize his administration for breaking commitments that were as amorphous as a creeping North Atlantic fog bank. 

But by avoiding risk at the ballot box, he carries it into the premier's office — potentially making it harder for him to gather support for sweeping changes or hard choices that were not telegraphed to those most affected.

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