Saskatchewan

Spring election during possible COVID-19 outbreak 'irresponsible,' says Sask. NDP

Saskatchewan NDP Leader Ryan Meili said the premier would be "irresponsible" to call an early election this spring given the potential for a COVID-19 outbreak; Premier Scott Moe said it's a "very serious decision."

Premier Scott Moe says decision whether to call election 'very serious'

Saskatchewan NDP Leader Ryan Meili said a spring election would put members of the public at risk of COVID-19. He said the premier should hold off until more is known about how health officials will handle the virus. (Alexis Lalement/Radio-Canada)

Saskatchewan NDP Leader Ryan Meili said Premier Scott Moe would be "irresponsible" to call an early election this spring given the potential for a COVID-19 outbreak.

Meili asked Moe Monday if he would end speculation and let the public know if the Oct. 26 election date was set or if a vote would come this spring. Moe did not provide a definitive answer.

While there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Saskatchewan, concerns about the virus have forced some Saskatchewan schools to cancel trips. Also, Moe had planned to attend a conference in Houston this week but organizers in Texas cancelled due to concerns about spreading the virus.

"I would like to hear why [Moe] thinks he would send people to the polls during a pandemic," Meili said.

Meili said having candidates and volunteers out door knocking, holding rallies and sending people into the polling stations during an outbreak were reasons to avoid an early election call.

"If Saskatchewan gets this wrong that means the rest of Canada will have trouble containing this virus. It's irresponsible on behalf of people in this province and the whole country," Meili said.

Moe calls province 'prepared' for COVID-19

On Monday, Moe did not rule out calling an early election despite concerns over the potential spread of the virus through a campaign and voting.

"No one knows for certain what's going to happen over the next month or two or over the next 10 or 12 months," Moe said about the outbreak. "Hindsight will be 20-20 with respect to this."

"We are prepared in the event that we do have some [COVID-19] cases in this province."

Premier Scott Moe said he will make the best decisions for the people of Saskatchewan when it comes to the timing of an election. (Germain Wilson/CBC)

In the last two weeks, Moe has not made clear whether he will send voters to the polls this spring, saying his party was preparing for Oct. 26 and called the election dates "set" rather than "fixed." Speculation has increased that the government could introduce its budget on March 18 and call the election the following day. 

The Saskatchewan Party government currently has a healthy majority of 46 seats to 13 and has 90 per cent of its candidates nominated. The NDP has only 30 candidates nominated at this point. 

Moe has not pointed to one specific reason that would justify calling an early election.

More than a week ago, Moe said "economic unrest" caused by blockades in support of Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs who oppose a natural gas pipeline through their territory in B.C. could play a factor in an early election. 

He mentioned COVID-19 as a potential election trigger during the same media availability.

The premier then backtracked three days later, saying COVID-19 "will not be a factor" in calling an early election.

"This is a very serious decision that we make as a government and it's a decision that we don't take lightly," Moe said Monday.

Moe said he would continue to "make the very best decisions necessary on behalf of the people of this province."

He said the primary reason to call an election is to get a mandate from the people of the province to govern.

Sask. doctor highlights election risks

During Monday's question period, Meili raised the potential risks of an election during a possible outbreak, prompting some government MLAs to laugh off the statement.

Meili also referred to a Twitter thread written by a former deputy medical health officer in Saskatchewan, Dr. Anne Huang.

Huang said a campaign could disrupt government co-ordination "to ensure the necessary supply chains remain functioning." She said dissolving the legislature could prevent important decisions from being made, including whether to extend sick leave for workers stuck in a self-isolation.

"Candidates and volunteers knock on doors and shake hands; people attend rallies; and on election day, we send hundreds of thousands of people to polling stations, where they wait in line together and come into contact with shared pens, papers and door handles. Many of those who vote will be seniors, the group at highest risk of severe COVID-19 outcomes," Huang wrote.

New Brunswick faces possible election

On Monday, New Brunswick Green Party Leader David Coon opened the door to keeping the PC minority government in power to avoid sending New Brunswickers to the polls should there be a COVID-19 outbreak in the province.

No one in the province has tested positive for the virus, but Coon said one way to limit the spread of the disease when it arrives would be to avoid the large gatherings that are part of an election campaign.

"The coronavirus is in my thinking, of course," Coon told reporters Monday afternoon. "How can it not be? There's got to be an adult in the room on this."

Health minister calls outbreak 'impossible to predict'

Saskatchewan Health Minister Jim Reiter said health officials have a plan in place if the province were to have an outbreak of the virus.

Reiter said health officials would be in a position to respond to emergency situations if they arose during a campaign.

"I'd still be the minister of health, so in an emergency situation I obviously could still be called," Reiter said.

When asked if the government discussed an election campaign and potential spread of the virus with health officials, Reiter said: "Just at a very high level."

"It's impossible to predict. We could have something happen very quickly, we could have something happen months from now," Reiter said about the uncertainty of when COVID-19 would reach Saskatchewan.

He said the government and health officials have been forthcoming with information, holding media briefings.

Reiter said it was important for the public to practice "social distancing" and other precautions — washing hands, sneezing into a tissue and avoiding handshakes — to prevent infection .

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Adam Hunter

Journalist

Adam Hunter is the provincial affairs reporter at CBC Saskatchewan, based in Regina. He has been with CBC for more than 14 years. Follow him on Twitter @AHiddyCBC. Contact him: adam.hunter@cbc.ca

With files from Jacques Poitras

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