NL Election 2021: The Foggy Road Ahead

The 2021 provincial election is over. It is time to start the work of repairing what has been broken, or brace for another cascade failure.

With the conclusion of the 2021 provincial election, this is the last donors-only ‘letters from the editor of the Independent’ to be made public. This article was initially sent to subscribers on 28 March 2021 (#43). For more like this delivered directly to your inbox every week, donate here.

Following the most fucked up campaign in post-Confederation history, the 2021 Newfoundland and Labrador election has finally reached its epic conclusion: more or less the status quo. 

Andrew Furey and the Liberals secured a slim two-seat majority at the expense of the Tories and NDP, who each saw their leaders defeated (plus Lucy Stoyles outmanoeuvring Jim Lester in Mount Pearl). Most other incumbents were returned, including three independents—Paul Lane, Perry Trimper, and Eddie Joyce (who has been banging the anti-Bruce Chaulk drum longer than anyone else). Results have yet to be officially certified, but estimates on Saturday put overall voter turnout around 48%—with a high of 51% in the greater St. John’s metropolitan area, progressively falling with distance from the capital down to 37% in Labrador. This is the lowest voter turnout in provincial history.

Now the real work begins.

This provincial election has demonstrated that Newfoundland and Labrador is governed—if we can call it that—by grossly underdeveloped and fragile institutions, administered by aggressively mediocre “public servants.” The party system is broken; the legislature is deeply dysfunctional; the elections agency, as former Telegram politics reporter James McLeod recently tweeted, is “an absolute circus run by a clown.” Now is the time for sober reflection and collective healing in the wake of a traumatic electoral experience.

This is not what we are likely to get. The Liberals have made it clear they see this as a clear “mandate” to do… whatever it is they want to do. The plan here is clearly to white-knuckle through any questions around legitimacy and hope that the public will simply eat whatever they are served out of the Moya Greene Mystery Box. Maybe this is a sound wager; the last ten weeks have given many people a serious distaste for politics. And why not? Can anyone seriously say they’ve been inspired by anything politicians have offered up over the last three months?

But enough “negativity.” Let’s be generous here, and take newly-minted Premier Andrew Furey at his word. Let’s assume he really wants to enact positive, transformative change for Newfoundland and Labrador. He has an opportunity to do this by engaging in the very basic level of reform demanded by this gongshow of an election. He can start by fixing our democracy.

Now is the time to start thinking hard about the kind of structural improvements the province needs. Ideally, the electoral breakdown we’ve just gone through would force MHAs to seriously address how our democratic machinery works—because currently it clearly doesn’t. We need campaign finance reform to fix the party system, force party leadership to engage with the grassroots, and incentivize more ordinary citizens to get involved. We need to beef up the legislature so that MHAs are empowered to create better laws—like setting up the sort of committee system that enabled the national House of Commons to commission a report into proactively modifying its Elections Act to account for, say, the logistics of a pandemic. In hindsight, this sort of practice might be helpful. I don’t know; given what we’re working with, a little bit of statecraft in this province would go a long way.

We need the premier to take his job as “head of government” seriously. Show us that you are really interested in rising to the challenge. Our political institutions need drastic reconstruction to restore public legitimacy. Our economy needs to be reshaped by, and towards, the human interests of all residents—not merely those already sitting at the pinnacle of the local pyramid. The whole world—environmentally and economically—is going to change radically in the decade ahead. (This is already happening; northern Labrador is melting.) This is not the time for politics as usual. You tell us that the road ahead is foggy; I tell you that leaders who chase down mirages in the mist will be dashed against the rocks.

There are opportunities here. In a post-pandemic world where the internet has obliterated geography—and where sitting at the fringes of the North American imperial core confers great geopolitical advantages—Newfoundland and Labrador may finally taste its long-prophesied moment in the sun. There is a future to build here for those brave and foolish enough to try. We can create a new world instead of clinging to fantasies of an old one that is every day disintegrating and never coming back. That so many things are broken means there is new room to build. The People’s Recovery project is proof that it can be done against the backdrop of official disinterest and dysfunction.

The 2021 provincial election is over—for now. In the interim it is time to start the work of repairing what has been broken, or brace for another cascade failure. One way or another, we cannot put off our necessary “structural adjustments” any longer.

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash.

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