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Leaders of the three major political parties have started going toe to toe in a number of forums and debates this week.
The debates are a significant milestone in the 2021 campaign. With Covid protocols limiting traditional campaign events and media coverage of the leaders’ tours, debates offer the electorate a direct glimpse into the style, personality, and substance of the people vying to form government.
At the same time, many voters have already cast their ballots. Elections NL told the Independent that, as of Monday afternoon, February 1, over 15 000 people had already voted.
Round One: Education
The first forum between the leaders of the major parties took place on Monday night. The Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers’ Association (NLTA) held a virtual leaders forum on education.
PC leader Ches Crosbie, Liberal leader Premier Andrew Furey, and NDP leader Alison Coffin were in attendance. The forum was moderated by Dr. Kelly Blidook of Memorial University’s Department of Political Science. Graydon Pelley, leader of the NL Alliance, was not in attendance as he withdrew from his campaign due to medical reasons.
The forum saw leaders provide opening and closing remarks, as well as answer six questions related to education. They were provided with the questions in advance in order to prepare.
Teachers wanted to know about subjects such as teacher allocation plans, service equity between rural and urban schools, and whether suspected cuts would impact specialists like psychologists and speech language pathologists in the K-12 school system.
Crosbie stressed his intention to listen to teachers to inform decision-making and to treat education as an investment rather than as an expense.
“In a government I lead, every issue that matters to you will be up for discussion,” said Crosbie.
He also made a point of reinforcing his campaign messaging that the Liberals are planning cuts and are not being transparent.
Meanwhile, Furey focused on linking health and education, and stressed that specialist services in the school system are not on the chopping block.
“One of the highest social determinants of health is education,” said Furey.
Furey also highlighted the gains made this past year in terms of teacher and specialist allocation and access to technological resources.
He also reinforced Liberal campaign announcements related to increasing educational opportunities related to technology and entrepreneurship in the K-12 system.
“That doesn’t sound like cuts to me,” said Furey.
Coffin, too, tied health and education together, saying that when specialist services aren’t provided in schools, “we are passing an even greater burden along to our health services.”
She highlighted the “inclusion delusion,” and stressed the need for greater supports for those with special needs.
Coffin also argued that education should be seen as an investment and that, in order to see different outcomes, voters should choose NDP.
“If we want a different future, we need to make different choices,” said Coffin.
Overall, the forum reinforced existing messaging from the three campaigns while shedding some light on issues related to education.
Round Two: Labour
The Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour (NLFL) is holding an election forum on Tuesday, February 2—with one notable absence.
While Alison Coffin and Ches Crosbie are attending the forum, Premier Andrew Furey is not. The Liberals will instead be represented by Deputy Premier and Finance Minister Siobhan Coady, who is running in St. John’s West. The debate will be moderated by NTV legislative reporter Michael Connors.
The NLFL is headed by Mary Shortall, who had been serving on the Premier’s Economic Recovery Team (PERT) prior to resigning in January.
While Shortall is under a non-disclosure agreement, she said in a January in a media release that she believed her continued participation on the team would place her in conflict with her mandate as President of the NLFL.
“The recommendations that will be made by Chair Dame Greene may very well shape the next several decades of the type of economy and society we will live in,” said Shortall.
“It is imperative that the voices of workers, as well as marginalized and underrepresented groups, be heard, considered, acknowledged, and truly reflected in any discussion around economic recovery. Most importantly, it must be real collaboration and consultation, not simply window dressing.”
Crosbie issued a press release urging Furey to attend the NLFL forum:
“The Premier is unwilling to face the music and explain himself directly to Federation of Labour membership,” said Crosbie. “Andrew Furey will stop at nothing to avoid talking about the Greene Report and the deep cuts and job losses he is planning.”
Coffin also expressed skepticism on Premier Furey’s absence.
“Andrew Furey is asking people to elect him as premier and he won’t even show up to speak with the workers of the province,” said NDP Leader Alison Coffin.
“That tells me a little about his priorities, and makes me even more concerned about what might be coming in the Dame Greene report.”
Furey was unavailable for comment, but the Independent was provided with the following statement:
“The Premier has a busy travel schedule ensuring he connects with Newfoundlanders and Labradorians across the province, and supporting candidates. While he was grateful for the invitation, he and the Liberal Party of N.L. are confident in Deputy Premier and Finance Minister Siobhan Coady’s leadership and ability to speak to the issues raised. The Premier is participating in the Leaders’ Debate hosted by media the following night, and is focusing on preparing for that.”
Round Three: the Provincial Televised Debate
All three leaders are slated to appear in the televised leaders’ debate. It will be aired on Wednesday, February 3 on CBC Television, CBC Radio and NTV beginning at 7 p.m. NST and 6:30 p.m. in most of Labrador.
The stakes are likely to be high at this widely publicized event. For many viewers, this will be their first opportunity to witness Premier Furey on the debate stage.
This week’s events are likely to be top of mind for voters who are looking to cast their ballot early. Advance polls are taking place on Saturday, February 6 and the deadline for receipt of completed mail-in ballots to district offices is February 7 at 4 p.m. (or February 9 at 4 p.m. if sent to Elections NL headquarters).
The St. John’s Status of Women Council is also hosting a virtual panel on gender equity on Monday, February 8, at 12 p.m.
Photo: Party leaders at the NLTA Education Forum. L-R: Andrew Furey (Liberal), Ches Crosbie (PC), Alison Coffin (NDP).
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