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The Dwight Ball Exit Interview

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On the evening of Monday, 17 February 2020, Premier Dwight Ball abruptly resigned from office. Citing a desire to spend more time with his family and live “a more private life,” Ball announced he would remain on as interim premier until the Liberal Party selected a new leader—ideally in the immediate few weeks before the spring provincial budget.

Rather than a traditional press conference, Ball resigned through a pre-recorded video. The premier then gave one-on-one interviews with a number of media outlets on Tuesday, 18 February. 

The Independent was granted one of these interviews. What follows is a transcript of that conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.


Drew Brown (The Independent): It’s kind of funny that we ended up here today. We both used to work together in the Liberal opposition office several lifetimes ago. 2007, I believe.

Premier Ball: Yes, I remember.

Did you know then that you wanted to be premier?

In my family, I was probably the least political member. I had a father, and some brothers, and a sister who were… very political. [laughs] So the Sunday afternoon chats were pretty rigorous and robust, no question about that. I was always the person who loved being part of a team, and eventually got involved in working with various associations and those kinds of things, and that’s when I started taking leadership roles. It was kind of a natural progression into this, when I got in politics. Then things started unfolding and I ended up as leader of the Opposition, and then of course into this office. 

But it was never a goal like you’d set out in highschool or somewhere thinking, I want to be the future premier of Newfoundland and Labrador. You’ll never see that show up in any of my records.

You‘ve been quite tenacious in your political career over the years, as in the beginning there were lots of back-and-forth elections. What kept you coming back to politics?

I know politicians always say this, that you want to contribute and give back to the province… but as I got into it, I found it interesting. You see that you can actually make real, good change.

But what I always knew and felt, when you got up to speak, and went in Opposition, and it’s a question… I always tried to be respectful of the person I was asking the question to. First and foremost, I always wanted to be prepared. So I spent a lot of time preparing for Question Period, or even now as I meet with cabinet or caucus. You know, making sure that you’re prepared enough that you can ask the right questions. Then you use that information to try and make the best decisions you could.

So why the sudden resignation now? Why not stay to deliver the budget?

Well, a number of things. I did take some time over Christmas and the holidays… rate mitigation was a big focus for me, getting that done. When you think about it, coming out of the Atlantic Accord last year and going right into rate mitigation… that turned out to be a big massive process of information sharing and so on.

It took two years to sanction the [Muskrat Falls] project, so you can imagine the amount of time to unravel some of the things that have been done. So we worked pretty hard at that, the date kind of kept moving for when we could get to some kind of a plan, so that didn’t happen. I wanted to make sure rate mitigation was done, and so we put out that plan, there’s two or three steps to it. So that’ll be implemented. There’s a little more work to be done.

I think the key to all of this is that I’m not leaving. The fact is that I didn’t want to run anymore. I’ve seen enough elections. I’m in my mid-60s now. If I was 50 it’d be a different answer to that question. But it’s a stage of my life now where re-election is not an option. I’m not leaving, I’m going to continue on being MHA.

Do you expect there could be an election call soon?

You know, that’s the thing with minority governments: you never know. And you never know what motivates some people. So therefore what I did know is that I wasn’t willing to run again. It was then fair, when rate mitigation was done, to let the party know that I wasn’t running again.

And I asked for a leadership process to get a new leader in place, and I can guarantee that the new leader will have my full support, and I will be available then as a caucus member for whatever he or she needs, for any advice based on the experience I have running this office.

What does that leadership process look like?

The party itself, they’re working on the rules now. It’s a process that we had in 2013, it’s the timelines would need to be shortened. So for example, we can run a provincial election from start to finish in 35 days. You can do a federal election in literally 60 days. So, you know, the time in the calendar kind of works, we had the time to do this. So the party, they’re working on the guidelines right now. They’ll put a process in place really quickly and then we’ll be seeking nominations.

What are you going to miss most about doing this job?

[laughs] I’ve worked with some fantastic people. I think one thing that’s underestimated when you look at government, is the number of great people that are experienced and dedicated to their jobs, that I get a chance to work with on a daily basis. These are people behind the scenes that provide the analysis and advice to make decisions, and there’s quite a few of them. And there’s no question that it’s those attachments that I’m going to miss. People who not only become coworkers, they become friends, and you get to know them and their family. So I’m going to miss the people that I work with, there is no question about that.

Who is the most interesting person you’ve met as premier?

One of the first byelections that I did was in Cartwright-L’Anse au Clair—I’m not going to name the town—but when I went into the town, people were like: you gotta meet this man. He’s a political junkie, you gotta go meet this man.

He wasn’t very easy to find, because it was in the middle of the afternoon—he was a busy fella, he was an older gentleman—but when we finally tracked him down, we went into his shed. Everything was all stacked up kinda neatly, he had his little woodstove going even though it was June, and boy. What a conversation we had. And I’ll always remember that because it was early in my career. It was the first byelection that we won. 

And I’ve met people right up to Obama, you know, you name it. There’s been any number of people I’ve had the privilege of meeting. There’s been so many, I can’t single out one. I’ve got a lot of great memories of people and the advice they’ve given me. 

Even when I wasn’t always looking for it, people were always going to give advice.

[laughs] Yeah, I can definitely appreciate that. What would you rate as your greatest accomplishment in office?

You know, when I came into politics, and people asked me, what is something you felt, you could lift it up?, I just really started very openly talking about wanting to make a difference in mental health and addictions in this province. So that was a big focus for me. I started talking a lot about that in Opposition. I wanted to make it something core to the policies of the Liberal party. I think we’ve been able to do that.

And still, being the only province with a standalone department for the Status of Women is important too. Lots of premiers have reached out and asked me about that. So putting a spotlight on that was important. 

You know, health infrastructure. The replacement of the Waterford now which will be just weeks away, getting that done, replacing that building from 1855. The hospital in Corner Brook. You know, lots of achievements. Education is a big one, with the Education Action Plan. This is really transforming education now for future generations.

So, you know, lots of individual achievements. But collectively, they mean that they will influence and impact not just this generation but, you know, future generations.

What is one thing you maybe wish you could have handled a little bit better, in retrospect?

This province, we spend well over $25 million a day, with 47,000 or so people working, so there’s always room for improvement in certain things that you do. But overall when you look at it in a general sense, there’s been a lot of great achievements. Status quo was never an option for me, and making decisions with the best information you had was always the most important thing. So overall I’m very pleased with the record that we’ve been able to do, and the team that we put in place in cabinet and caucus, and some fabulous people, and a lot of friendships that I’ve developed there I’ll cherish into the future. But…

The list of achievements, certainly, are extensive. But you know… I don’t look into rearview mirrors, I just continue on and learn what lessons where I can and use the experience from every decision.

Fair enough! So then the last meta-question, I guess, would be: how do you think history will evaluate your time in office?

[laughing] Most historians will probably look at it and say, the 13th premier of Newfoundland and Labrador….. oh my God. What a bunch of challenges he had to deal with! From the financial challenges we face as a province, and then to just throw on this Muskrat Falls project that was completely out of control.

So, you know, I think I will be remembered for not running away from that, and facing those challenges head on. But for me, the things that I’m most proud of are the achievements that I just listed in education, healthcare, infrastructure. But I think the most important thing in all this is that we develop strong relationships, that the person coming behind me as premier of this province can build on the relationships that we have grown within communities, within our province.

But it’s also with other provinces. You know, Atlantic Canada, there’s not a province out there that I couldn’t pick up the phone and call the premier right now and have a chat about things that we have in common. And we have a federal government now where the relationship has never been better, and that’s important to me. So, core to all the decisions and successes that we’ve had are partnerships within Newfoundland and Labrador and beyond.

So, one thing that you had mentioned is that creating a standalone department for the Status of Women has been a significant achievement. But one thing that you have taken some criticism on is that there is no real standalone department of Labrador and Indigenous Affairs separate from your office as the premier. Why did you insist on keeping that portfolio?

In terms of Indigenous affairs, it was about government-to-government. When I talk to Indigenous leaders, it is important that they talk to the leader of the provincial government. So, that was the idea of me keeping the Indigenous Affairs office under my responsibility. That’s the reason why I’ve kept it here.

In Labrador, there was lots of opportunity in Labrador, but there was also a lot of need in Labrador, and I wanted to make sure that we gave it the attention that it needed. The Trans-Labrador Highway is something I think people in Labrador will remember me for, and how aggressively we invested in the Trans-Labrador Highway. I’m very pleased now that the last tender is out and that will be completed, so… that was the reason it was a priority for me, and why I kept that in this office. 

So the argument is that by keeping the Labrador portfolio, you could give it the extra attention that it needed versus transferring it somewhere else.

Labrador Affairs was really about making sure that— so, there’s always been some issues around how Labrador would fit within, and the attention that it deserves. But with that said, we had four MHAs during the early years from Labrador that we put a lot of attention to, and did a lot of consulting with. So it wasn’t really about this one office when it comes to Labrador Affairs, it was about working with our MHAs, they had great access as certainly all MHAs would, with a focus on Labrador Affairs.

Fair enough. So, over the years, the Liberal Party has had ups and downs with how the party itself is functioning. Are you happy with the position the party is in as you resign?

Early on, you know, the Liberal Party was not in good shape financially. So the first thing, when I was in Opposition, it was a priority for me to make sure that we go get our own house in order. If we’re going to go on and move on and ask people to support us, you know, to be government, well then we’d better have our own financial house in order for the party. We were able to do that.

The other thing was building the volunteer base of the Liberal Party. There was really no good organizational structure of this party back in 2011. And I worked tirelessly going around this province getting into communities building that organizational structure. And that is what launched us to victory in 2015. It took a lot of work, and a lot of miles—a lot of kilometres, I should say—meeting a lot of people, but it really starts in the grassroots and that’s what I want to remember the Liberal Party of Newfoundland and Labrador for, the grassroots party with a great organizational structure in the districts in our province.

Sounds good. Now I’d like to start looking towards the future a little bit. Do you have any advice for your successor?

Take your time with decisions, you know, gather the information. You’ve got a great cabinet who are now experienced and a great caucus that has experience. In 2015 it wasn’t that way, we had very little experience within our cabinet and caucus from government. That’s very different now. The new leader will come in with a wealth of knowledge and a wealth of experience there to support the new leader. And there’s people like me and other premiers as well. Don’t be shy in reaching out. It’s very rare to find a situation you have to deal with that someone else has not had to deal with something similar in the past. So I’ve always used people that have been in the chair and have had the experience, not only ones in Newfoundland and Labrador but other jurisdictions as well. 

So, reach out, seek advice, listen to people, engage people. I think that’s important advice I would give the next leader.

What do you think the next six months of Newfoundland and Labrador politics looks like?

[laughs] Well, you know, Newfoundland and Labrador politics is always pretty interesting. But I think for us as a party, the thing that we’ll be dealing with is that we’ll put in place a really good leader, and we’ll continue putting in the structure that it takes to set the party up for the next election. So I’ll be providing that support to our leader and our caucus and you know, I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure the Liberal Party of Newfoundland and Labrador continues to be strong.

How do you think the Opposition are going to respond to these developments?

Well, they’re in Opposition, so the motivations are different. But you know, I respect Opposition parties and all members of the House of Assembly. As I say, we sit there not as a right. It’s a privilege. And we should never take that privilege for granted because you could lose that privilege because of the response of people. So I never take those things for granted. We’re elected to serve. 

So how other parties respond to decisions that I made [Monday], I respectively, respectively, you know… you listen to the concerns—what I want to do—this is not about firing shots at people. This is about engaging people. It’s not about settling scores. This is really about making sure we respect each other and the full House of Assembly.

What do you think is the most pressing issue for the province going forward?

Oh, it’s definitely the financial structure. There’s no question right now that a province like Newfoundland and Labrador, when you look at not receiving equalization, given the financial challenges, and aging demographic, losing population… these are all connected. So there’s no question, there needs to be a federal program that’s relevant to the current realities of Newfoundland and Labrador. We’re not going to qualify for equalization because of our revenue on a per capita basis, but we need a federal program to support provinces. 

Because it could be another province, at some other time. Right now, Newfoundland and Labrador needs support from Ottawa. And the fiscal stabilization program is one of the things I’ve been talking about nationally. Certainly we have been working with the federal government to put in place a program to reflect the current realities here in the province.

[laughs] So how come you’re leaving before getting it done?

It really comes down to a minority government, and not being willing to go into another election at this time. 

And it’s about renewal and rejuvenation. Every leader and every premier, it’s important that you’re prepared to allow and support and seek out the renewal process from time to time. And that ten years, eight years, as leader of the party… I think when you look at the history of the Liberal Party in Newfoundland and Labrador, that’s going to rank up there near the top of the time frame that leaders would have stayed at this job. So it’s really about renewal and rejuvenation and giving me an opportunity to actually contribute to the party in a different way.

Fair enough. Okay, so, one more thing that I am genuinely curious about. Is it true you really answer your own Facebook messages?

Ahh… yeah, you know, it’s not unusual for me to be answering Facebook messages. And it’s not unusual for me on a Sunday afternoon or a Saturday afternoon somewhere, where someone would message me and say they had a concern, to say how do I reach you?, and that quite often I made a lot of cold calls to people all over the province. People are usually a little shocked, there’s a lot of disbelief. But i just love engaging with people, it’s who I am, it’s what I’ve done all my life. 

Yeah, I’ve answered quite a few Facebook messages myself.

Wonderful. Thank you, Mr. Premier.

Art by Gord Little.

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