ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — Voters in Newfoundland and Labrador registered their frustration with traditional politics Thursday by reducing the incumbent Liberals to minority status — a rare event in the province’s history.
The last time a sitting government won less than a majority was in 1971 when the province’s first premier, Joey Smallwood, failed to win his seventh consecutive majority government.
With all polls reporting, Premier Dwight Ball’s Liberals had won 20 of the legislature’s 40 seats, the Tories — led by political rookie Ches Crosbie — took 15, the New Democrats won three and two Independents were elected.
On the national level, the Liberals’ tepid win is significant because it ends a string of victories by right-leaning parties over sitting governments — four of them Liberal — in the last five provincial elections.
Ball, a former pharmacist, struck a conciliatory tone in a victory speech that focused on his commitment to work with other members of the legislature. He never mentioned the party’s loss of majority status.
“It is important that we work together for the good of all the people of Newfoundland and Labrador,” he told a crowd in Corner Brook. “I will continue to welcome collaboration within the house of assembly.”
The premier went on to remind supporters how the Liberals have worked hard to cope with a dire economic landscape.
“We have overcome the worst financial situation that this province has ever faced,” he said, referring to the fact that the province’s economy has sputtered since world oil prices plummeted in 2014.
In 2015, when his party was elected, Ball promised no public service layoffs and no tax increases. But the province’s bleak economic outlook led him to break both of those promises, causing a public backlash.
With a population of 525,000, Newfoundland and Labrador’s debt is more than $13 billion — the heaviest per capita burden in the country. And its debt-to-GDP ratio — considered a good benchmark of economic health — stands at 47 per cent, by far the worst in Canada.
After his muted victory speech, the 62-year-old premier shifted gears and took aim at Crosbie.
“Let’s keep in mind that the electorate spoke tonight,” Ball told reporters. “Ches Crosbie didn’t get what he was looking for. He ran a very dirty campaign.”
Crosbie, the 65-year-old son of former federal cabinet minister John Crosbie, delivered an ominous-sounding speech in St. John’s, predicting Ball’s government would be defeated within a year.
“The tide is going out on the Ball Liberal government,” he said in a monotone. “We now have a situation of constitutional instability …. The popular vote is extremely close, within a razor’s edge.”
Crosbie said he would soon be speaking to the newly elected New Democrats and Independents.
“I am not conceding victory to the Liberals,” he said. “They will have to struggle … to hang on to power.”
With the Liberals just one seat shy of the 21 needed for a majority, the opposition parties don’t have enough seats to topple the government.
And the Liberals will be looking for ways to reach that magic number. Speculation has already focused on the two elected Independents, Eddie Joyce and Paul Lane. Both were once members of the Liberal caucus, though Lane also served as a Tory.
As well, a recount will be held in the riding of Labrador West, where an NDP candidate defeated Liberal cabinet minister Graham Letto by five votes.
Ball won his riding in western Newfoundland. Crosbie won his riding in St. John’s, and NDP Leader Alison Coffin, a former economics professor, also won in the capital.
When the provincial election was called, the Liberals held 27 seats in the 40-seat legislature, the Tories had eight, the New Democratic Party held two and there were three Independents.
The Liberals were considered front-runners at the beginning. But the Tories closed the gap toward the end of the race.
In the end, the Liberals took 44 per cent of the popular vote and the Tories 43 per cent. The NDP was a distant third at six per cent. There were no Green candidates in the race, but nine Independents were in the running.
The NDP fielded only 14 candidates, saying they weren’t prepared for a snap election call.
During the campaign, Ball stressed that the province’s economic picture had improved by citing an increase in employment over the past year. Statistics Canada figures show 7,000 more people were working in the province in March when compared with the same month last year.
Ball also promised he would balance the province’s books by the end of his term in office, the same deadline promised by Crosbie. The Liberals have pledged to scrap the tax on auto insurance and draft a new autism action plan.
As for Crosbie, it appears the electorate wasn’t won over by his pledge to do things differently — he even referred to himself as “a new broom.”
Part of the problem was that his Conservatives have taken much of the blame for delays and blown budgets plaguing the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project, still under construction in central Labrador.
The megaproject, which the previous Tory government approved in late 2012, is two years behind schedule, and the projected cost has doubled to more than $12.7 billion.
Crosbie has been stung by forecasts suggesting residential electricity rates will double by 2021 to pay off the project.
As well, an ongoing public inquiry has hurt the Tories. Since last fall, former Tory cabinet ministers and premiers have testified about alleged mismanagement and cost overruns.
Crosbie’s campaign also had its share of glitches.
Less than a week before the vote, Crosbie announced that Tory candidate Michael Normore would be ejected from caucus if he won his riding in Labrador. Normore had used social media to say he was opposed to legal abortion and same-sex marriage — views incompatible with the party’s positions. Normore lost Thursday.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press