Liberal leadership hopeful John Abbott says party insensitive for going ahead with campaign
In face of COVID-19, party announces virtual convention and online voting with new leader being named May 9
Friction in the Liberal Party bubbled to the surface Wednesday after the announcement that its leadership contest and convention will proceed — with significant modifications — despite growing fears about COVID-19 and calls from one candidate to scrap the process.
The announcement came on the same day the province's chief medical officer of health declared the pandemic a public health emergency, with previously unfamiliar phrases like "social distancing" now being uttered with growing frequency.
After several days of deliberations, two party officials — John Samms and Judy Morrow — revealed during a news conference in St. John's that registered Liberals will be able to vote online or by telephone for the next party leader between May 6-9.
But unlike previous leadership battles, where candidates gave speeches and supporters waved placards, a new leader — either John Abbott or Andrew Furey — will be declared through a news release or some other method on the final day. The winner will also become the province's 14th premier.
The party's annual convention will take also place, though it will be a virtual convention, with delegates joining through technology, so there will be no personal contact.
"We have to do what we have to do in these troubled times," said Morrow.
"This is not the ideal situation to be running a leadership election, but we've decided the best decision for us now is to move forward."
Health officials have called for social distancing, added Samms.
"This process allows for that," he said.
The decision means the party agreed with Furey — the man with widespread support from members of the Liberal caucus, and the candidate favoured to replace outgoing Premier Dwight Ball on May 9 — and not Abbott, who had called for the leadership contest to be suspended.
"I don't agree with the decision," a disappointed Abbott told reporters after the announcement Wednesday.
He said the party was being insensitive by proceeding with with the contest while society is grinding to a halt, with many citizens being told to stay in their homes to contain the spread of the virus.
No face-to-face campaigning
This scenario means Abbott and Furey will now have to try to connect with voters by telephone or other arm's-length means, which rules out the traditional door-to-door campaigning or mingling with people at coffee shops.
Furey did not attend the announcement, but Abbott was quick to express his frustration, saying he will "almost have to apologize" when he makes calls.
He said the race should have been stopped until public health officials could give the all-clear.
"Obviously our points were not heard to the extent we feel they should have been," said Abbott.
Abbott worries the decision will hurt the party if people view the decision as putting politics ahead of the interests of citizens.
Furey released a statement earlier Wednesday, supporting online and telephone voting.
Liberals have until 5 p.m. on April 4 to register to vote in the leadership race, after which the party will vet to list to make sure registrants are "credible."
After that, each voter will receive a secure PIN, allowing them to vote.
Morrow and Samms said the decision was not an easy one.
"[But] we have to continue with the business of the province when it can be done in a safe way," said Morrow.
Furey and Abbott both stormed out of the gate earlier this month in a bid to attract delegates, but have since modified their campaign efforts.
Party officials say more than 5,000 people have so far registered to vote in the leadership race.