Nfld. & Labrador·Analysis

The federal election in N.L. is ... a little boring. Is that a problem?

There's an election underway, but it's not much of a race for most of Newfoundland and Labrador's seven ridings. What does that say about candidates and voters' interest?

5 of the province's 7 ridings just about locked in for Liberals

Elections Canada signs, like this one in British Columbia, will be popping up across the country on Monday. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

In its final days, the 2019 federal election isn't so much winding down as barrelling toward Oct. 21, and as of this writing pretty much any governing scenario is up for grabs.

But for much of Newfoundland and Labrador, it's been a very different campaign — one largely devoid of the election adrenalin and unpredictability that has characterized the national outlook.

Sure, there's been some chatter over the Liberals' proposal of a fixed link to Labrador. The NDP have chipped into the Liberal lead in St. John's South-Mount Pearl, and the contest for St. John's East appears to be too close to call.

But policy and personality have mostly taken a backseat beyond the proverbial overpass.

The races for those five of the province's seven ridings have been sluggish at best, with predicted Liberal re-elections that have felt almost like a foregone conclusion since the campaign was officially launched Sept. 11. 

"On the voter's end, it probably feels a little boring," said Kelly Blidook, a professor of political science at Memorial University.

How did this end up into a campaign that wasn't? The answer could be as simple as ABC.

Even puffins were anti-Conservative in 2008, at this 'Anything But Conservative' rally led by Danny Williams. (CBC)

Blame the alphabet?

OK, so it's not that simple.

But Progressive Conservative Danny Williams's charge against Stephen Harper's federal Tories back in the 2008 election, rallying voters to choose "Anything But Conservative," has had a lasting legacy on the province's party base.

"I think it probably turned a lot of voters off, and also turned off a lot of volunteers, and people who worked with that party," said Blidook.

While one Conservative has been elected since — Peter Penashue won in Labrador in 2011 before being turfed two years later in a byelection — ABC decimated the party's provincial backbone, and rebuilding the Conservative brand has been an uphill battle ever since, to put it kindly.

Even 11 years later, that Conservative slog continues. While the party has a full slate of candidates for Newfoundland and Labrador, none of them is in serious contention to win.

Josh Eisses, the candidate in Long Range Mountains, doesn't even live in the province — his party biography conspicuously says he was raised on "the East Coast." And while a party spokesperson maintains he has visited the riding, his presence has been little seen or heard — and he declined to take part in the only organized local debate (as did Liberal frontrunner Gudie Hutchings), as well as candidate coverage for CBC Radio's Newfoundland Morning.

Kelly Blidook teaches political science at Memorial University. (Submitted by Kelly Blidook)

Placeholder problems

Eisses is one of two out-of-province candidates, along with the Green Party's Labrador candidate, Tyler Colbourne, who lives in Nova Scotia and has also kept out of the election spotlight.

In their defence, the two put their names forward for public office when few others would. Colbourne and Eisses are against incumbent Liberals Yvonne Jones and Hutchings, respectively, who both coasted to victory in 2015 with more than 70 per cent of the vote. They are both expected to win comfortably this time around, too. 

The more competitive the race, the more likely it is that people show up to vote in it.- Kelly Blidook

Going against those odds is hardly anyone's idea of fun.

"It's super-hard to get candidates in the first place, when you're asking people to run when they know they can't win," said Blidook.

That doesn't do much to incentivize underdogs, who usually have day jobs and other constraints that keep them from driving to every outport of these ridings' far-flung corners to knock on doors and grow support at the grassroots.

"I don't think that we can expect a lot of placeholder candidates to invest as they would as someone who would potentially win. They simply won't have the resources, they won't have the donations, they won't have the volunteers," said Blidook.

Placeholders can surprise, though. Think of the Orange Wave in 2011, when Quebec elected a sweep of rookie NDP MPs, including candidates like Ruth Ellen Brousseau. Brousseau had never set foot in her riding of Berthier-Maskinongé, and infamously spent the last days of campaign on holiday in Las Vegas.

She's now seeking her third consecutive term in office.

A self-fulfilling prophecy

While the NDP has picked up speed since the start of this election, it's no Jack Layton-style surprise surge.

In such a tight national race, all parties are under pressure to focus on battleground ridings, helping propel a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy in Newfoundland and Labrador: other parties aren't investing in most of the province's ridings because they're Liberal strongholds, and they remain Liberal strongholds partly because there's a lack of real competition.

Newfoundland and Labrador's voter turnout in 2015 was 61.1 per cent, an improvement from the 2011 election but still the lowest of any province. (CBC News)

And those Liberal candidates are also encouraged to not rock the boat.

"Their purpose is to win the election," said Blidook.

"I don't expect them to be out there trying to get people engaged, and especially I don't expect them to be out there trying to get them to think about different policies and think about different parties."

This is not to say a humdrum campaign is an example of democracy gone sour, although Blidook noted, "There is evidence out there that the more competitive the race, the more likely it is that people show up to vote in it." 

It's worth noting that Newfoundland and Labrador trailed the country in voter turnout in 2015. 

While it's impossible to attribute just one cause to a complicated issue like voter turnout, the Liberal domination and historically low engagement could mean people are just fine with the way things are, said Blidook.

They might be perfectly comfortable with Liberals govern," he said.

It brings to mind that old curse: "May you live in interesting times." Sometimes, boring isn't a bad thing.

And if you disagree — the way to voice that is at the ballot box on Monday. 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Lindsay Bird

CBC News

Lindsay Bird is a journalist with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador, based in Corner Brook.

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