Nfld. & Labrador·Weekend Briefing

It may (or may not) be Andrew Furey's time, but the clock had run out on Dwight Ball

One cabinet minister after another sprinted to be in Andrew Furey's corner, just days after Dwight Ball found that he had lost a critical mass of support from his inner circle, writes John Gushue.
Dwight Ball surprised many last month by announcing he would be stepping down, but the signs had been there for a while. (CBC)

There were more cabinet ministers in Andrew Furey's splashy launch for the Liberal leadership than had been in the cabinet room lately … or at least, that's a narrative leaking out of Confederation Building, where news of internal strife in the Ball government has been running rampant for months now.

Anyway, there was Furey — best known as a surgeon, but the son of a wily political operator, Senate Speaker George Furey — promising wholesale change to governing N.L., while enjoying the warm embrace of almost all of the status quo. 

From a distance, some casual spectators may have seen the beginning of the political wheel of change as starting on Feb. 17, or 15 days earlier.

That Monday was when Dwight Ball announced his plan to resign as party leader and, effectively, as premier. That will happen when a new leader is picked in May.

Other than when the pink slip is delivered at the ballot box, premiers don't resign or retire often, but they tend to do it in public. Brian Peckford rented a large hotel ballroom on a Saturday in downtown St. John's in 1989. Clyde Wells convened a quickly organized news conference over the Christmas holidays in 1995. Danny Williams held his big farewell — a surprise to his troops — not long after the ink dried in late 2010 on Muskrat Falls. Kathy Dunderdale brought the PC caucus to the Confederation Building lobby (the same locale as Williams) when she had enough of things, in 2014.

Premier Danny Williams announced his retirement in the lobby of Confederation Building in late 2010. (Paul Daly/The Canadian Press)

Ball didn't do any of those things. He sent out a videotaped message just an hour before the start of the supper-hour news shows, with an embargo not to use it until then. His message had some personal notes, but it avoided weighty topics that we know are dividing the party, and didn't much get into two questions: why leave, and — just as important — why now. 

This was not an impulsive decision, nor a rash one. The pressure had been mounting on Ball from within, and for some time.

Just before Ball resigned, the rumour mill was rife that a number of cabinet ministers had indicated they would not be attending the next meeting … or perhaps worse. (More on that ahead.) That would indicate a loss of confidence in Ball's leadership, no?

By the time of the 2019 election, it was clear patience had run out in some quarters … including with some influential folks in his own party.

But the ebbing of confidence goes back further.

I think a turning point for Ball's fate came at the end of 2019, when he tried and failed to contain calls for an internal leadership review.

Ball publicly said he was fine with the review (aren't leaders always?), but he very much wanted it pushed back, all the way in fact to 2021.

Ball did not get his way. Not even close.

The suggestion of moving the leadership review back to next year — in effect, being halfway between an ordinary four-year election cycle — tanked. Only three members of the provincial Liberal executive supported the latter date. By contrast, 13 executive members voted against it.

That meant that a Liberal leadership review would have happened sooner rather than later, most likely in June.

To zoom out even a little further, it's important to understand why most of the executive would favour the earlier review — and that inevitably brings in the party's lukewarm performance in the 2019 election.

Ball is greeted in Corner Brook after winning the Newfoundland and Labrador election on May 16, 2019. The party lost seven seats — and its comfortable majority. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press )

Ball and the Liberals retained power in the May 16 election, but just barely.

With 20 of the 40 seats, Ball went forward with a minority government — and a caucus where every single member now had the ability to make him nervous. Not a few Liberals — "we got whipped" in the election, one told me — related how they had expected Ball to take a victory lap last year, and then work on a smooth transition of power so the party could rebuild for the next campaign.

The opposite played out, and things got even messier.

Don't forget that caucus relations were unsettled well before that election. Just the preceding fall, Ball had apparently been warned about what might happen if he were to leave the province for a trade trip to China.

Under pressure to make good on a pledge about mitigation for power rates because of Muskrat Falls, Ball held a non-event news conference.…What was hard to miss was who wasn't there: many of the top Liberals didn't show up.

Making everyone happy is, of course, impossible when you're premier. Ball learned that almost as soon as he won the 2015 election. It was so telling that his first major policy action was cancelling a two-percentage-point HST hike that the financially beleaguered Tories had enacted in their final days. Even though no one understood where Ball was going to make up the money elsewhere, he cut the tax.

And then had to uncut it, in a budget where headlines about broken promises trumped a gloomy fiscal reality. The Liberal talking point from then on was that they had no idea how bad the finances were — standard operating procedure for governments everywhere when they take office.

Ball never really got his mojo back. By the time of the 2019 election, it was clear patience had run out in some quarters … including with some influential folks in his own party.

And then came things like the Carla Foote job fiasco, in which the government opted to say nothing to try to make the story go away … and wound up with a PR albatross that remains around its neck to this day.

Ball's own statements — describing Christopher Mitchelmore as a "loyal soldier" and then most recently saying Carla Foote "deserved to have a job," just after moving her into an assistant deputy minister role that came as a surprise to his colleagues — have hardly helped allay anxieties.

After the Christmas break, Ball was running the government while leaning entirely on his back heels. It must be difficult to manoeuvre when everyone is watching to see if you'll tip over.

When Ball and federal Natural Resources Minister Seamus O'Regan announced the plan to … come up with a plan for Muskrat Falls rate mitigation, it was hard not to notice who wasn't there: many top Liberals. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

In February, under pressure to make good on a pledge about mitigation for power rates because of Muskrat Falls, Ball held a non-event news conference with a co-operative Seamus O'Regan, in which they announced … well, that there'll be a plan, later. Insiders told CBC it was a news release dressed up as a news conference. 

What was hard to miss was who wasn't there: many of the top Liberals didn't show up.

As my colleague Anthony Germain reported last week, Ball was fending off more direct pressure from cabinet ministers. While he said he was not pressured to resign, that technically is true because Ball refused to meet with seven unnamed ministers who had had enough of things like the surprise Foote appointment as an assistant deputy minister, and a jammy St. John's housing allowance provided to Gordon McIntosh, whose $350,000 consulting fee for Nalcor had already raised eyebrows. (The housing allowance was evidently more irritating, as McIntosh lives in Scotland.)

So here we are.

Andrew Furey launched his bid for the Liberal Party leadership Tuesday evening in St. John's. (Peter Cowan/CBC)

Even before nominations closed for the leadership campaign to replace Dwight Ball, cabinet ministers were getting out there and publicly championing an Andrew Furey leadership bid. This could not have played well for John Abbott, a veteran of the public service, who would declare two days later — nor for anyone else who had been mulling a bid. 

Perhaps it is was significant that Transportation and Works Minister Steve Crocker (who represented the caucus at the party executive vote on the leadership review, and who was among the notable no-shows at the mitigation non-event) was the first cabinet minister to cheer for Furey in public. 

Then came Sherry Gambin-Walsh, then Andrew Parsons, and so on.

By the time the actual launch happened on Tuesday, most of the cabinet was firmly on his side, or at least in his field of vision.

With that kind of momentum, a lot of Liberals think the time has come for Andrew Furey.

One thing has been certain for quite a while, though: the clock had run out on Dwight Ball.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador 


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