Nfld. & Labrador·Weekend Briefing

Forget the byelection, we're already in the campaign for the next general election

A byelection to replace Dwight Ball is underway, but as John Gushue writes, it already feels like a bigger campaign is also upon us.

Humber-Gros Morne voters go the polls Oct. 6; the rest of us will be voting soon enough

Andrew Furey's Twitter account posted this photo of Furey early Monday morning, heading to Humber-Gros Morne to start the official byelection campaign. (Andrew Furey/Twitter)

On Monday morning, as bright rays of a sunrise burst over the apron at St. John's international Airport, Andrew Furey put on a mask, slung a satchel over his shoulder and walked towards a PAL Airlines plane waiting to take him to Newfoundland's west coast.

We know all of this because Furey's Twitter account posted the photo in the early hours of that morning, which you might remember was Labour Day. A lot of people may have been getting a little extra holiday shut-eye at that hour, but Furey was, as he put it "heading west to spend the day in Deer Lake and other areas of Humber-Gros Morne."

Ah, there it was: the giveaway to what the day would likely be about. Humber-Gros Morne is the district that Dwight Ball represented in the House of Assembly.

Sure enough, a bit of a political ballet was staged that afternoon. Ball endorsed Furey as the candidate to replace him in a byelection, and Furey shortly thereafter made it official himself.

The two of them appeared together — physically distanced, of course — in a series of photographs, including some with tourism operators in Gros Morne National Park, one of the district's economic hubs. 

And so a byelection campaign is underway.

And not just a byelection campaign: we are effectively in election mode, with the clock ticking since Aug. 19, the day Furey was sworn in as premier.

By law (we have an unusual one here in Newfoundland and Labrador), a succeeding premier without a mandate of their own is required to call an election within 12 months of being sworn in, unless the fixed-date election would come first. The latter would be October 2023, so we're looking at an election in the next year.

PCs have been filling slate

The Opposition Tories had been working on election readiness even before Dwight Ball changed the political landscape in February with his decision to step down as premier. In late January, the Progressive Conservatives started the process of nominating candidates for an election — hardly an unwise gesture in a minority government situation.

Furey's swearing-in, and the uncertainty of when an election might fall, only amped up the feeling that a campaign is underway in all but name. The regular summer circuit may have been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but politicians are finding ways to wave flags, sometimes virtually.

Ches Crosbie and the Tories have been filling slots in the Tory slate for the next election, to be ready for whenever it is called. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

While Furey has made it clear he is not keen on an immediate election, knowing that he has election-calling cards in his deck gives him an advantage … but also a possible liability, as the clock keeps ticking. I imagine Furey will be taunted with lines like "What are you afraid of?" before too long.

It's possible Furey might wait as long as a full year. Calling a four-week campaign in mid-August next year would put the vote in mid-September. [If September strikes you as a weird time for an election, it's not unprecedented; we went to the polls that month in 1966 and 1975, both times returning the incumbent party to power.]

With the Tories filling their candidate ranks, leader Ches Crosbie may be wanting to get in Furey's face over issues. Crosbie hasn't had the easiest time himself as a party leader, but he has been sharp in his criticism of the governing party and its box-fresh and politically untested leader.

That means the budget that will (finally) be coming down on Sept. 30 will be seen in the lens of an election that could come at any moment. I doubt the Liberals will unveil it as a document around which they intend to build a platform, but then again, it could very well play a part in triggering an election, should all the non-Liberals unite on it.

Back to the byelection

Furey becomes the third premier needing to get a seat in a byelection, and the only one among the lot facing an actual contest for it.

In 1989, Clyde Wells famously lost his seat in his old district of Humber East to longtime Tory incumbent Lynn Verge. While there was speculation that Corner Brook was rejecting the once-local lawyer who turned his back on the city by moving to St. John's, it was also obvious that Humber East voters were a) satisfied with Verge and b) assuming that Tom Rideout and the Tories would win.

NL Alliance Leader Graydon Pelley is running again in Humber-Gros Morne. (Katie Breen/CBC)

The PCs got more votes in that election, but the Liberals won more seats. Indeed, with a 10-seat margin, the Liberals had a comfortable majority. Hence, when the newly elected MHA for Bay of Islands stepped down to clear a path for Wells, the other parties sat it out — a decision of practicality more than deference.

That MHA, of course, was Eddie Joyce, who continues to hold a seat in the House of Assembly, and outside the Liberal caucus from which he was ejected in April 2018.

The other incoming premier needing a seat in a hurry was Brian Tobin, who was acclaimed as Liberal leader in early 1996, after Clyde Wells announced his retirement. Tobin chose Bay of Islands, but skipped on a byelection. Even though voters had gone to the polls two years and nine months earlier, Tobin called for an immediate election, upending the other parties and claiming 37 of the 48 seats.

Parachute strings 

One of Furey's missions will be to persuade voters in a west coast district to not notice the parachute strings around him. Furey would hardly be the first townie (to be precise, he lives in Portugal Cove-St. Philip's) to represent a rural district. (Danny Williams, the archetypal townie, represented Humber West during his nine years in the House of Assembly.) It may help that Furey's uncle, Chuck Furey, had represented coastal communities in this district, when he held the former seat of St. Barbe for 15 years, ending in 2000.

Deer Lake Deputy Mayor Mike Goosney will represent the PCs in next month's byelection. (CBC)

Furey will be facing genuine competition in the Oct. 6 byelection, too. Mike Goosney, the deputy mayor of Deer Lake, is running for the PCs, N.L. Alliance Leader Graydon Pelley is running for his party, and the NDP is promising to field a candidate.

Furey may be new, but two of the names on the ballot have been here before: Goosney was the NDP's candidate in the 2015 election that Ball won, while Pelley was where Goosney is now: the Tory candidate.

Ah, politics.

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