Under pressure, Andrew Furey changes tack, calls for delay in the leadership campaign
Liberal Party deeply divided over whether vote to replace leader should go ahead amid pandemic
The man favoured to take over as leader of the Liberal Party and become the next premier of Newfoundland and Labrador has called for a pause in the contest to replace Dwight Ball.
After initially saying he supported moving ahead with a leadership vote with telephone and online ballots, Andrew Furey reversed his position Friday afternoon.
"I look forward to putting my head down and doing my part to get our province through this pandemic and revisiting the leadership when the time is right," Furey tweeted shortly before 5 p.m. NT.
Furey said his campaign has "adapted at every stage" during what is now a public health emergency.
"We will continue to be agile in all our campaign efforts."
Days of division
Furey's change in position follows several days of growing frustration over the party's decision to proceed with selecting a new leader on May 9, using a system dependent on online and telephone voting to ensure Liberals were doing their part to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Furey's opponent, John Abbott, had called for a suspension of the campaign earlier this week, saying the party was being insensitive for forging ahead, and accused party brass of opportunism.
When contacted Friday, Liberal president John Allan said the election planning committee had received word from Furey's team.
"We're going to deal with it," said Allan, who added discussions will be taking place with Furey and Abbott to determine the way forward.
The about-face by Furey also followed a day of warnings from some Liberals, including some of his closest supporters, and the resignation of chief returning officer Rodney Mercer.
And Premier Dwight Ball also weighed in Friday afternoon, calling for party unity, as deep cracks emerge inside caucus over a decision to forge ahead with the vote.
Ball said Friday afternoon he would not have announced his pending resignation if he had known how serious the COVID-19 situation would become.
"My priority right now is not about the future of the Liberal Party, but the future of Newfoundland and Labrador and its residents," Ball, who announced Feb. 17 he would be stepping down, told reporters during the daily public health emergency briefing.
Ball plans to step down as premier when the party selects a new leader, scheduled for May 9, and pledged to stay focused on the job until his successor is selected.
But he also stressed the importance of experience in a time of crisis, perhaps signalling that he is prepared to stay on longer as premier.
"It takes experience to get through this crisis that we're dealing with. Someone said to me this morning it takes experience to do that job, and not often do you see a card on the back of a fire truck saying 'Novice Driver.'"
Telling caucus to unite
Ball said all three party leaders are working closely, and he's telling his caucus to unite.
"It's important for all of us to represent the people that put us there," he said.
On Friday afternoon, the Progressive Conservative Party postponed its June special general meeting, citing the "COVID-19 crisis."
Earlier Friday, chief returning officer for the leadership vote, Rodney Mercer, quit the position because he's concerned the decision will cause long-term damage to the party's reputation.
Mercer is surrendering his "neutral" position as returning officer in order to return to his executive post as party vice-president.
In a letter to party president John Allan, a copy of which has been obtained by the CBC, Mercer wrote, "While I have no interest in taking sides with respect to the candidates, as vice-president I am very concerned with the reputation of the Liberal Party and the damage being caused to it by continuing this effort. I believe we are doing a disservice to both candidates and to all Liberals to be engaged in politics as usual."
Mercer said both opposition parties have set aside politics during this public health emergency.
"Liberals should do no less" by postponing the election, he wrote, "until the crisis has passed."
Liberal MHAs are also speaking out.
"There's no time for politics at this time," Harbour Grace-Port de Grave MHA Pam Parsons said during a telephone interview.
"I do not support that," Placentia-St. Mary's MHA Sherry Gambin-Walsh said in a brief written statement.
Sources say other Liberal caucus members are also opposed to the decision to proceed with an online and telephone vote, with registered Liberals casting their support for either John Abbott or Andrew Furey between May 6-9.
'No reason why it can't occur'
But others, including Corner Brook MHA and Furey supporter Gerry Byrne, say the contest should go ahead.
He said health officials have suggested that business should proceed when it can be done through electronic or other means that allow people to practise social distancing, and the online/telephone vote fits that model.
"We have the template to be able to that," Byrne said. "There's no reason why it can't occur."
Furey released a statement just before noon Friday, saying he believes a completely virtual annual meeting and leadership vote is a responsible move, but added, "If the party decides to pause the leadership, my campaign would fully support their decision.
"We unequivocally support any measures that keep people safe and know that it is incumbent on each of us to conduct ourselves with the utmost caution to help stem the spread of this virus."
Meanwhile, NDP Leader Alison Coffin issued a statement Friday, saying all three political parties need to pause all leadership elections, reviews and conventions so MHAs can focus on the current emergency.
"Proactive and forward-thinking decisions now will put us in a better position to weather this storm," Coffin said.
"A Liberal leadership race and resultant change of leader at this time would be detrimental to this collaborative relationship, impede the government's ability to address the pandemic, and undermine public confidence in the province's leadership. We need stability, and we need to maintain the trust of our citizens."
Coffin has asked her party's executive to do the same and ensure its 2020 convention not occur before the fall.
Meanwhile, Lake Melville MHA Perry Trimper would not offer an opinion when contacted Friday. He wants caucus to discuss the issue early next week, and he hopes a unified position can be reached.
"Right now my preoccupation is everything going on around me. Let's wait a few days and discuss it among ourselves," said Trimper.
CBC News has also learned that Cartwright-L'Anse au Clair MHA Lisa Dempster and Burin-Grand Bank MHA Carol Anne Haley are also questioning the decision to proceed with the vote.
Dempster contacted CBC via Twitter to ask that any reference to her in the story be removed, but has not denied she has concerns about the timing of the leadership contest. And Dempster has not agreed to an interview.
Among those siding with the election planning committee are Burgeo-La Poile MHA Andrew Parsons, St. John's West MHA Siobhan Coady and Carbonear-Trinity-Bay de Verde MHA Steve Crocker.
By speaking out, Parsons is contradicting the position put forward by Furey, who said "democracy from home" can work in a situation where citizens are being urged to avoid social interaction, and society has practically ground to a halt.
Parsons is a strong supporter of Furey, but said her focus is now solidly on the needs of her constituents during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We face an unprecedented situation," she said. "Right now what we're seeing is not about politics. This is about taking care of our people."
Parsons said she's confident Furey will "do the right thing."
Former leadership candidate Paul Antle wrote on Twitter that "politics can wait."
"In the face of this health crisis, the answer is clear: pause the campaign. Let the joint public health response committee, representing all three elected parties, get us through this," he wrote.
Parsons supports the current approach to dealing with COVID-19, which includes an all-party committee and a team approach led by Ball, Coffin, and PC Leader Ches Crosbie.
Abbott has come out hard against the party's decision, accusing the Liberal brass of opportunism and of being insensitive to the difficult situation being faced by citizens.
Party president Allan defended the decision Thursday, saying he supported a model that allows Liberals to vote "in the security of their own homes."