Newfoundland and Labrador Election 2021: Let the Games Begin

With so much so much at stake, shrouded in so much secrecy, spread out across unruly social media platforms, chaos reigns over the coming campaign.

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With the starting gun fired for the 2021 provincial election, it’s time to take a look at where everyone is standing at the opening of the campaign. We’ll be exploring individual districts in greater detail over the course of the campaign, but we’re going to begin by looking at the bigger picture.

A lifetime seems to have passed in the 19 months since Dwight Ball squeaked the Liberals through the 2019 election into a minority government. The governing party’s fortunes were buoyed significantly by the province’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, where a combination of firm public health measures, social cohesion, and lucky geography have made Newfoundland and Labrador a veritable haven from the plague. Andrew Furey’s ascension to the Premier’s Office last August means that the province’s pandemic response is solidly in the hands of a triumvirate of medical doctors. Its success in shepherding the province through the second wave largely unscathed is the Liberals’ trump card of “trustworthiness” heading to the ballot box. Everything else aside, it is a true luxury that this election will be focused on our “pre-existing conditions” rather than the collapsing healthcare infrastructure and makeshift morgues cropping up elsewhere across mainland North America.

Pay No Attention to the Dame Behind the Curtain

But beyond the novel conditions created by the novel coronavirus, the Liberals are re-running a very familiar script as they gear up for this campaign. The flurry of funding announcements in the 36 hours before writs dropped on January 15 is nearly identical to how the 2019 election began—which was itself a well-worn page from the Brian Tobin playbook. (It might be worthwhile for us to revisit Doug Letto’s Run, which chronicled the last time a Liberal premier called a snap election in the middle of January.) Shamelessly throwing money around while simultaneously telegraphing the need for ‘hard economic decisions’ didn’t really work last time, but it’s difficult to discern whether that’s because the electorate wizened up to the cynicism involved or because they just generally didn’t like Dwight Ball. We’ll have a better idea come Valentine’s Day.

Nobody is starting the campaign with anything resembling a policy platform. Substantive plans for addressing the province’s long-standing economic and fiscal malaise have been left largely to the secretive PERT process, which will not be glimpsed by the public until sometime in the spring. (The Premier seems to be a bit sensitive about people pointing this out.) This means the 2021 election, like most of its predecessors, will not be a contest between clearly articulated visions of the future as much as a dispute about who is better able to manage administrative affairs. Premier Furey more or less explicitly framed the campaign this way in his opening speech on Friday evening. Given the ‘unprecedented challenges’ of the present moment—and the generational “opportunity to transform Newfoundland and Labrador”—the Liberals are asking voters which party they trust most to lead them through the coming ‘structural adjustments’ on the other side of the pandemic (without actually telling anybody what that involves). The gambit here is clearly to secure a majority government before unveiling anything too “controversial.”

In order to pull this off, the Furey Liberals are leaning heavily on two main strengths: the successful mitigation of Covid-19 and the provincial governing party’s deep personal and institutional ties to the federal governing party. Federal assistance in one form or another is going to be vital to any ‘economic recovery’ in Newfoundland and Labrador—whether that is the $320 million being doled out by the provincial government to offshore oil and gas companies who are actively suing them, the coming ‘financial restructuring’ of the Muskrat Falls project into part of a regional ‘Atlantic Loop’ energy scheme, or some other nebulous ‘bailout’. The increasingly heavy-handed message here is that voters need to elect Liberals in Newfoundland and Labrador in order to work closely with Liberals in Ottawa to get things sorted out.

In the absence of any real programmatic details about Furey’s proposed transformation, the governing party will try to make this contest entirely a question of managerial competence and federal rapport. And as long as the Trudeau Liberals retain power at the national level, Senator George Furey’s son has a firm upper hand in making this case.

One Goliath; Several Davids

This brings us to the other contenders. Under the leadership of Ches Crosbie, the provincial Tories came within a hair’s breadth of winning government in the 2019 election. It was so close, in fact, that Crosbie was triggered into giving a bizarre non-concession speech to supporters at party headquarters where he hinted that Lt. Governor Judy Foote had somehow rendered the results illegitimate. It is hard to imagine the Progressive Conservatives will get that close again in this round. 

Based on Crosbie’s campaign launch on Friday, one could be forgiven for thinking the Tories might have painted themselves into a corner. His opening speech laid out an alternate reality where the province’s problems began with Dwight Ball taking office in 2015, rather than being rooted in more systemic problems like the fallout from Muskrat Falls—an albatross still firmly affixed around the neck of the PC Party but which they cannot yet bring themselves to acknowledge, let alone address. The idea that the Liberals have “abandoned the offshore” is also flatly ludicrous given their commitment to cutting cheques to industry under the flimsiest of pretenses. (Offering to reduce royalties from the Terra Nova FPSO—and bailing out the Come-by-Chance refinery on the afternoon of an election call—does not exactly suggest an administration caught in the throes of Thunbergism.) And while the Tories are justified in underlining the austere and anti-democratic bent of Moya Greene’s PERT, pledging to restore jobs through targeted tax cuts does not inspire much confidence that they have really thought through an alternative vision for economic recovery.

But these are early days, and rumours abound that the party will take pains to emphasise the ‘progressive’ in Progressive Conservative during this campaign. It’s not out of the question that the Tories find traction with voters frustrated by the frankly imperious attitude of the Furey Liberals. Of course, whether or not a fourth-generation Crosbie scion is a good fit to lead an anti-elitist protest against the Furey dynasty remains to be seen. Hopefully this noble family feud will at least be more satisfying than the end of Game of Thrones.

The NDP, meanwhile, seem similarly underwhelming at the outset of the campaign. They are leagues ahead of where they were in 2019 when last-minute leadership turmoil threw the party into disarray. But it is hard not to feel like the party squandered its once-in-a-generation position as powerbrokers in a minority parliament. Its greatest accomplishments in the Forty-Ninth General Assembly largely boil down to helping establish a democratic reform committee and a committee to study universal basic income—both now dissolved by the election call without producing much in the way of results. While their commitments to the norms of liberalism are noble, they seemed to set collaboration and compromise as ends in themselves rather than methods for achieving more ambitious goals. (By way of example, Question Period in 2020 was more often filled with demands to ‘release a budget’ than demands about what the budget should actually contain.) The NDP seem well-positioned to defend the seats they already have, but this will put them back into a marginal position should Furey obtain the majority he is seeking.

That said, Jordan Brown’s two-vote victory in 2019 is a reminder that the social democrats have some wildcards up their sleeves in a campaign characterized by widespread frustration with the political status quo. They are also ostensibly more organically savvy in digital spaces—Lake Melville candidate Amy Norman, for example, is a nationally-renowned meme master—and this may be a major advantage in what is shaping up to be an Extremely Online campaign. But barring something astonishing happening—always a real possibility in a Newfoundland and Labrador election campaign—they seem unlikely to make major gains.

Lastly, we have the NL Alliance. Now in its second general election campaign, the fledgling anti-party party has already demonstrated more longevity than most previous attempts to launch new political organizations in this province. But they are lagging behind the other three in terms of election preparedness and it is admittedly difficult to envision where they might break through into the House of Assembly. If they have an advantage, it is that this Covid election is happening largely on social media, where the chaos factor is high. Small strategic interventions in digital spaces can generate outsized media reactions and, in turn, real-life influence—so it’s not entirely out of the question that the Alliance might surprise us. The decentralized nature of the Alliance lends itself to prioritizing niche issues in local races, and the devil is always in the particular details of each district. But more than anyone else, they are unquestionably facing the toughest uphill climb.

The Incredible Invisible Campaign

In broad strokes, these are the starting positions of the major partisan players on the road to February 13, 2021. Covid protocols mean this election will be especially different from previous campaigns in a number of ways. Restrictions on reporters travelling on campaign busses, for instance, means we’ll have significantly less insight into the daily operations of leadership tours—and the elimination of cake-cutting photo-ops in seniors’ homes more or less shreds 90% of the traditional election playbook. All parties going hard on social media campaigning (particularly Twitter) is also a major gambit. There is a real disconnect between online “activism” and material results on the ground. (Take it from someone who makes a living trying to convert online presence into material resources: it is neither easy nor straightforward to spin likes, shares, and comments into gold—let alone mobilization.) As a general rule, aspiring politicians have comparatively little to gain if they make good posts on Twitter, but a lot to lose if they make bad ones.

There are a lot of unknowns going into this truly unprecedented election. All initial appearances suggest this race is the Liberals’ to lose. But Andrew Furey is still a political novice unseasoned in the hard grind of leading a general election. With so much so much at stake, shrouded in so much secrecy, spread out across unruly social media platforms, chaos reigns over the coming campaign.

Welcome to the 2021 snap provincial election. Let the games begin.

Photo by Zach Bonnell.

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