Sheer cynicism or just plain politics? How Dwight Ball gave an unwanted Easter present to his opponents
Opposition blames him for a 'rush job,' but Dwight Ball knew what he was doing
As power plays go, Dwight Ball made quite the manoeuvre last week in calling the election — a double-pointed move that saved his own party money and put quite the burden of time and frantic energy on his opponents.
Ball called the election on Wednesday, April 17.
After waving some signs in the St. John's area the next day, Ball took a break and did not resume formal campaigning, though, until the following Monday.
Small wonder: the Easter weekend was in the middle.
Ball raised some eyebrows (including within his own party) by calling an election right on the doorstep of the holiest days in the Christian faith. Putting his campaign on pause was a practical necessity.
It also had this advantage: no money was spent for three days on fuel, travel, hotels, etc. — all the costs of putting a campaign in motion, and when you're getting around this province, they add up.
Recruiting candidates over the Easter weekend
While 21-day campaigns had long been the norm in Newfoundland and Labrador, the law now requires a 28-day minimum. Ball ran out some significant clock time out of the gate, while spending almost nothing on it. (On that first, pre-Easter day of campaigning, the Liberal team ventured out into the wilds of Mount Pearl.)
At the same time, Ball put the other parties in a rough spot, with a tough deadline.
Eight days passed from the time the writ dropped until this Thursday's deadline for all candidates to declare with Elections Newfoundland and Labrador.
That's not a lot of time, especially when your party has holes to fill.
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The timing of Ball's call meant that the PCs, NDP and NL Alliance had no choice but to work through the Easter weekend to get candidates in place.
I can only imagine what the leaders and volunteers with those parties were muttering after they realized what kind of weekend they were going to have.
To his critics, Ball's move is cynical; he clearly took advantage of the calendar and circumstances to put his opponents in a difficult spot.
NDP Leader Alison Coffin blasted the early election as "a rush job," one that prevented some potential candidates from getting their campaigns in order — and on time.
"Dwight Ball has taken that right away from them as best he could," Coffin said in a statement.
[As much as Coffin is blaming Ball, the New Democrats themselves are going to come in for a lot of scrutiny — and not just from casual voters. A party that had a caucus of five after the election of eight years ago now finds itself with no incumbent candidates and a roster of just 14 candidates for the 40 districts. Given the NDP managed to run full slates in the last two elections, this is a stunning change. At least one former candidate is astonished.]
Was the election really unexpected?
Still, we've heard no end of voices about how the Liberals caught the other parties off guard with a spring election.
That, after all, is kind of the plan.
"Because they are the governing party, it's easier for them to get candidates in place and lined up," Memorial University political scientist Kelly Blidook told us.
"They're trying to catch parties off guard if they can — they're taking what advantages they can."
But how much of a surprise was this? In mid-January, I wrote a column about how the political rumour mill was ramping up about a spring election.
Less than a week later — the very night the Liberals lost a byelection to the PCs in Topsail-Paradise — Ball made it clear that a spring election was on his mind.
"I'm ready for an election, that I can assure you," he told reporters.
It might be helpful to remind us all that Newfoundland and Labrador has a fixed-date election system on the books — or is supposed to.
A strategically early election
We went through this whole process in 2004, with the legislature agreeing to an election being held every fourth October, on the second Tuesday of the month. That would have placed this year's election on Oct. 8.
But, with a federal election scheduled for later that very month, it became clear that — as with 2015 — we weren't going to be voting in October.
Ball could have waited until November, but he obviously felt he would do better — despite public opinion polling that showed the Liberals were hardly towering over the Tories — in the summer.
Thus began the great guessing game about the election date. I was circling dates like May 28 and June 4 in my calendar as the rumours bounced around.
In the end, Ball picked May 16, and made the call some 19 days after that not-necessarily-helpful remark about voting before the kids get their report cards.
That spread of days is not large — just under three weeks — but it's still plenty of notice that the election buses were going be gassing up.
Colour me not at all surprised that we've found ourselves in a spring election campaign.
Sure, sometimes the rumour mill is full of fog, but sometimes the signals you're picking up are pretty much bang on.
Trail Mix: Something nice for your inbox
We're in full election mode at the CBC newsroom, and we're launching something new for this campaign: a newsletter that will come straight to your inbox.
Trail Mix — kudos to Zach Goudie, who came up with the name during a recent chat in the newsroom — will take you inside the campaigns, give you details on what's afoot, and feed that craving you have for political news.
- A prior version of this column had said Dwight Ball did not resume formal campaigning for four days. It was actually three.Apr 27, 2019 8:23 AM NT