An early election? Get ready for one, and all the wildcards that come with it
There's political gossip in the wind: the Liberals are itching to go to the polls early
I'll let you in on a little something: earlier this week, a bunch of us in the newsroom had a quick huddle to respond to what's been in the wind: there may be an early election.
Current legislation (more on that in a moment) holds that Newfoundland and Labrador voters go to the polls on the second Tuesday in October. The hitch: there's likely to be a federal election in October, and as with 2015, there cannot be overlapping campaigns and that would mean pushing the provincial vote to late November.
Except that, as the wind has it, Dwight Ball's Liberals are mulling over a much earlier vote. Hence our quick chat, in which we assessed our own readiness. [A couple of MHAs, mind you, told a colleague they have seen no signs of prep for an early election.]
Ball, incidentally, is in a scrappy mood, taking some potshots at PC Leader Ches Crosbie during a Rotary Club speech last week in St. John's. Curiously, Ball made a point of underscoring that he won't be going anywhere as Liberal leader.
"I'll be running as leader and I can't wait," he said.
- Dwight Ball kicks off election year with 'political jabs' at opposition
- Oil prices have dropped like a boulder, and that's got to be a migraine at Confederation Building
That speech is all prelude to what's coming. But there are wildcards and other factors that extend beyond Ball's eagerness.
What if Trudeau tanks?
In a province where Liberals hold every single seat in the House of Commons, N.L. voters may not be paying attention to the fact that Justin Trudeau is in a hell of a fight for the next election, which is expected on Oct. 21. While the Liberals have been leading in the polls, the margins have been quite tight and there have been several that put Andrew Scheer's Conservatives ahead.
That raises this question: What if the federal election is brutal for the Liberals? Why would a provincial Liberal party want to follow that act?
More to the point, why run a campaign with exhausted volunteers who just worked flat out on another election?
Even if Trudeau wins handsomely, Ball will be relying on burned out soldiers and tapped out donors who already gave at the national office.
It might be selfish, but I can see why the local Grits would want their own team working on all cylinders.
Sure, the Liberals are trying to reclaim Paul Davis's old seat in Topsail-Paradise in the Jan. 24 byelection, but as a friend of the Liberal persuasion put it to me this week, "That's Tory town." The last Liberal to hold that voting area was Ralph Wiseman, who was defeated in 2003. There has, to be fair, been redistribution since. The NDP have never had a prime stake in the district, and facing a bigger challenge.
In other words, winning that seat would truly be a boon for the Liberals.
For the Tories, a win will give them the good old "momentum card" of a string of three byelections since late 2017. For a significant win — one that will genuinely shake the premier's office — the PCs need a landslide on Thursday night.
Putting Ches on his toes
A key reason for an early election, according to the gossip: don't give Ches Crosbie time to prepare. Crosbie became leader last May, and the latest series of polls indicate support for Ball's Liberals is growing while there is not yet a discernible "Yes to Ches" trend.
A pre-emptive election would allow the Liberals to seize the incumbent's advantage: they have a team in place, lead in the polls, and can throw the switch.
The more time Crosbie has as Opposition leader, the more time he has to recruit candidates, and chip away at the government in the House of Assembly and in the news.
But wait, there's that legislation
Bill 40 was introduced in 2004, with a laudable goal: to make elections more regular, and arguably to remove the element of surprise that the premier's office could wield with a snap election. (Brian Peckford and Brian Tobin both liked going to the polls after just three years.)
The legislation allows for an exemption to the every-fourth-October pattern: if there's a new leader at the helm of the governing party. That's not the case here, obviously.
While the bill simply does not allow a premier or governing party an easy out for calling a quick election, the Statutes of Newfoundland and Labrador do allow for the lieutenant-governor to prorogue the legislature when the LG sees fit — that is, when the cabinet is ready to go. [NOTE: This element of the column was updated on Jan. 21.]
They say it's spring
While every election from 2003 onward has been in the fall, springtime is a more traditional voting time. Tobin, by necessity, needed a February election in 1996 after a coronation as Liberal leader after Clyde Wells's retirement; political expediency (on Tobin's part) meant another hasty February election three years later.
But six of the seven elections before that happened in the spring.
For what it's worth, the Smallwood era was a period of fall elections. In any event, many tacticians still see spring as a better time for campaigns. The weather is more agreeable than winter; families are around because the kids are in school; vacation season has not yet started; the provincial budget has been passed.
Speaking of that budget
Ball and his cabinet have shown little appetite for draconian budgets. Don't expect anything different this year. But Finance Minister Tom Osborne, who has been counting on oil prices to be more stable (and higher) than they've been lately, is still dealing with a record debt. That is one mountain of a tough sell.
Why the debt? Expect to hear "Muskrat Falls" even more than you already have. It's a great political crutch for the Liberals, and while none of the Tory leadership from the Williams-Dunderdale era is running the ship, also expect the Liberals to have them wear it.
And then there's that inquiry
Even the most naive of political observers know that there are political gains for the Liberals in having the Muskrat inquiry play out in drip-drip-drip fashion during an election year.
The inquiry will resume before a possible election call. Liberals are no doubt banking on daily headlines about what went wrong the last time the Tories were in charge.
The wildcard of wildcards. Turfed from cabinet and kicked out of caucus, Joyce is still smarting from a political humiliation. Planning to run as an Independent, Joyce will also likely be a fixture in the eyeline of the Liberals. What will Eddie do next?
Quote of the week
"It smashed up some parts of the snow machine, but there's millions of them things around. There's lots of windows around. But I've only got one wife, and I only need one wife."
That's Bruce Porter, speaking Thursday with Newfoundland Morning, describing his feelings after his snowmobile took off from him, smashed through his home and landed on his wife. (Who is going to be fine, thankfully!)
For your weekend reading
Henry Crane, a key figure in the utterly peculiar world of Bell Island politics and intrigue, spoke with us this week. Judge for yourself what he had to say.
Rap, drugs, redemption: the story of N8 Douce.
A story about pizza and politics from last Sunday has been the most-read thing we've published so far this year.
Kaiden Little, a sweet six-year-old boy who could not overcome cancer, inspired countless people.
Not every internship puts you in the hothouse of D.C. politics.
Beer and boilups don't mix.
The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary is recruiting more widely, and it's paying off.
Elaine Dodge-Lynch has got to be one of the most determined people you'll ever encounter in a gym. Read this remarkable feature, and see this profile by Jen White and Sherry Vivian:
This was the first of a series of features called This Is My Story, in which we revisit people we've profiled over the years — and tell you what happened in the time since. You'll see a new piece every second Wednesday.
Longer days, later sunsets
I'm always a sucker for a pretty picture. Maybe you are, too. The above sunset, from out in the Twillingate area, is one of the highlights in our weekly audience gallery. You can see it here. We love getting photos from all over; please email them to email@example.com.
That's it for this weekend. I'm working on the road in the days ahead, so Weekend Briefing will be taking a break next Saturday. See you here in a couple of weeks.