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That other election to watch: Newfoundland and Labrador

By Tim Powers      

The Rock goes to the polls before school rises for the summer, but the large number of undecided voters means there’s no certainty about the outcome.

Liberal Dwight Ball has been premier of Newfoundland and Labrador since 2015. If historical norms were to continue, he might be more assured of another election victory this year. But like many other parts of Atlantic Canada, traditional patterns are now far from certain on the Rock, writes Tim Powers. The Hill Times photograph by Sam Garcia
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OTTAWA—This week the time has come for me to write on something other than the SNC-Lavalin Liberal mess. I just can’t muster the energy to swim any longer in that turd soup.

So what is the best thing to do when you are feeling worn down by federal politics? Look east. Canada’s Far East: Newfoundland and Labrador. My home province turned 70 this week and it will soon be headed to the polls.

Premier Dwight Ball last week told Newfoundlanders and Labradorians that a provincial election would be held before June 27, when school rises for the summer. Like many other provinces, Newfoundland and Labrador has a fixed election date, which was to be in the fall, right around the time of the federal vote, expected on Oct. 21. The prerogative exists to alter the date if conflicting circumstances arise. Right now, the troubles of the federal Liberals, who are closely aligned with Ball’s own Liberal Party, provide the right justification for the premier. If voters are going to be angry with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the fall, he wants no part of that. Even though the Liberal brand tends to be stronger in N.L., a little bit of de-risking never hurts.

But the premier’s march to the electorate is not without challenge, and this is different from the historical norm. Traditionally, Ball, as a Liberal premier who had beaten the Progressive Conservatives (the PCs had previously been in power for 12 years), would be sailing assuredly to re-election. Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have comfortably altered between either the Progressive Conservatives or the Liberals holding power for a decade or longer before making a change. But like many other parts of Atlantic Canada, traditional patterns are now far from certain on the Rock.

A poll released March 26 and done by the regionally respected research firm MQO found that a fully 56 per cent of the electorate was undecided. Among those voters who were decided, 21 per cent were for the Liberals, 18 per cent for the PCs, and a measly four per cent for the NDP. The poll surveyed 500 people, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 per cent. Some N.L. polling we have done at Abacus Data has eerily similar numbers, including that giant undecided figure. Since the start of polling in Newfoundland and Labrador, it is difficult to find a period like this one when all the mainstream parties were being crushed by the “I don’t knows.”

Like with the ongoing Alberta election campaign, it could be argued that this is a vital time in my province’s history, a pivotal moment. Hard choices need to be made about the province’s fiscal future and policy challenges that come with an aging population and less than ideal immigration patterns. Yet days away from an election, more than half of the electorate isn’t yet sure which party or leader to choose.

Both Ball and opposition PC Leader Ches Crosbie so far haven’t struck strong notes with the people. Neither is your normal N.L. chest-thumping politician. Their dispositions tend to be quieter—even reserved, by my province’s standards. That new normal, which should be welcome, appears to be causing brand confusion locally. After years of being conditioned that the loudest and the toughest is the best ballot option, that choice doesn’t exist now.

Full disclosure here: Crosbie is a cousin of mine and I worked for his father. But I have no role in his campaign.

As in many other parts of the country, voters are anxious about change and worried about their survival. Again, the high number of undecided voters suggests they aren’t yet seeing a shining light they are prepared to support.

Clearly, the premier believes he can provide just enough of the right guidance to the public to keep his government in office. That is not a certain bet when more voters are ambivalent about you than supporting you, after four years in office.

Someone with a dull roar is going to win the provincial election. It is going to be fascinating to see who gets the decibel count high enough to win voters’ support. The worst thing that could happen in N.L. is if the “I don’t knows” take it.

Tim Powers is vice-chairman of Summa Strategies and managing director of Abacus Data. He is a former adviser to Conservative political leaders.

The Hill Times

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