Nfld. & Labrador·Analysis

Here's the backstory for the law Furey cited when he sent voters to the polls in a pandemic

Andrew Furey has been criticized for going to the polls too early, when the only reason the legislation exists is a former premier was accused of going too late.

PCs passed what one MHA called the ‘Roger Grimes Bill’ in 2004

A chaotic Newfoundland and Labrador election will see all voters make their choice by special ballots. (Heather Gillis/CBC)

Liberal Leader Andrew Furey has stressed that he was simply following the law when he sent voters to the polls, mid-winter, during a pandemic that had — up to that point — largely spared Newfoundland and Labrador.

At a pandemic-related briefing Feb. 9, Furey said, "You make decisions with the evidence available to you.

"At the time, the numbers were low and they had been low for quite some time. And we were given assurance that a COVID-19 election could happen."

At the time, coronavirus cases had begun to spike, in what turned out to be a variant-driven second wave that would plunge the province into lockdown days later.

"There had to be an election in 2021," Furey said. "I mean, that's the law. It's not my law, but it is the law. And I said I would follow the law, which we should follow." 

Furey has been criticized for citing that law to go to the polls too early, when the only reason it exists is a former premier was accused of going too late.

That prior choice led to the creation of a piece of legislation written to settle a personal grievance that — nearly two decades later — has helped plunge the provincial election into a cycle of unprecedented pandemic-fuelled chaos.

2001 Liberal leadership vote

Rewind the tape two decades, to Roger Grimes's narrow and divisive victory at a Liberal leadership convention held on a stormy Mount Pearl winter night in early 2001.

The convention became necessary when Brian Tobin bolted from the premier's office for another go at federal politics, just 20 months into his term.

Grimes decided against calling an election, with years left in a majority Liberal mandate.

The decision left the Opposition PCs incandescent with ire.

Roger Grimes waves to supporters in Botwood as he speaks after losing the 2003 provincial election to PC Leader Danny Williams. Grimes served 2½ years as premier, after the resignation of Brian Tobin. (CP PHOTO/Jacques Boissinot)

"The great Abraham Lincoln said that no man is good enough to govern another without that other person's consent," Danny Williams said in his first speech as Tory leader, in April 2001.

"I challenge you now, Mr. Grimes, to let the people of Newfoundland and Labrador decide if you have a mandate.… Let's lace up the skates, Roger, and may the best team win."

But the skates remained in the hockey bag for several seasons, as the Liberals continued to govern.

As a result, the PCs made a series of promises for government reform, including fixed-date elections and a requirement that a general election would be held "within 12 months if the premier resigns during the first three years of a four-year term."

'Roger Grimes Bill' tabled in legislature 

Grimes's 2½ years as premier came to an end when the Williams-led Tories won a comprehensive majority on Oct. 21, 2003.

A year later, the PC government tabled the promised legislation.

It might sound extraordinary that a law was changed purely in response to one person. But as Ross Wiseman made clear, that's exactly what happened.

Williams addresses supporters in Corner Brook after his party's victory in the 2003 provincial election. Williams was critical of Grimes's decision to serve 2½ years as premier without calling an election. (CP PHOTO/Andrew Vaughan)

Wiseman was elected as a Liberal MHA under Tobin, before crossing the floor to the Williams Tories after Grimes took over.

"Maybe we should, in fact, change the name of this bill," Wiseman helpfully suggested during debate in the legislature on Dec. 7, 2004.

"Instead of giving it a numeric identification, calling it Bill 40, we should call this the Roger Grimes Bill."

The bill became law, but didn't actually follow through on the exact Tory election promise.

Instead of requiring a general election within a year of a premier stepping down, it mandated that action a year after a new leader is elected by the party and sworn in as premier.

Last fixed-date election was in 2011

The fixed-date election law worked as advertised in 2007, and again in 2011, after Kathy Dunderdale succeeded Williams and won a healthy electoral mandate of her own.

But following that, it was a different story.

Dunderdale quit in January 2014, in the wake of #darknl. So that meant an election would be held by January 2015, right? 

Wrong.

The party's chosen successor bailed before taking office, sparking a delay. In the end, the convention that selected Paul Davis as Tory leader didn't happen for nearly nine months after Dunderdale's departure.

By law, the one-year clock started ticking for Davis when he was sworn in as premier soon after. But the election was further delayed when the legislature voted to push it back a few more months to avoid conflict with a pending federal vote.

The initial promise of a one-year period for an election call after the resignation of a premier stretched to nearly two years.

In 2019, then premier Dwight Ball also sidestepped fixed-date election provisions that would have seen the vote held in October, or late November as a backup date.

Ball instead opted to send voters to the polls in May of that year — a move the Opposition called politically motivated.

Which brings us to another part of the law — notwithstanding any of the fixed-date election provisions, the House of Assembly can be dissolved "when the lieutenant-governor sees fit." That usually happens, of course, when the premier decides to go to the polls.

Liberal Leader Andrew Furey leaves Government House on Jan. 15, hours before the official launch of the Newfoundland and Labrador election. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

And that leads us to where we are today. 

Furey went to the lieutenant-governor in mid-January.

He is correct to say the law required a general election by August. But any impression that this is some kind of immutable requirement is, well, less correct. It's been changed before, and could have been changed again.

Furey could have taken that route, but didn't. He could have held the election later in the year, but didn't do that either.

Since politicians are involved in making these decisions, that inevitably means politics are involved.

Furey took over a minority government — certainly a complicating factor in all this — and was ahead in the polls by 30-plus points when he pulled the pin.

Last fall, the Opposition parties passed a non-binding resolution to have the vote delayed to October 2021. Then, in January, they said they were ready to hit the hustings.

The province was a week or so away from getting through the election before the variant struck, and political pandemonium ensued.

That pandemonium has been fuelled, in part, by a perceived need to comply with a piece of legislation drafted to make an example of a long-ago premier.

Now, a week after what was supposed to be election day, it's still up in the air when the results will be finalized, and voters find out who will lead the province through that second wave — and beyond.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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