Newfoundland and Labrador premier takes office, now has to win over the public

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — As Newfoundland and Labrador’s newly minted premier gets to work addressing the province’s economic problems, he must turn his attention to another pressing political hurdle: winning a seat in the legislature.

Andrew Furey assumed office last week after winning the Liberal leadership race. According to provincial law, he now has 12 months to call an election. The political novice has indicated he does not plan to call a vote before the end of 2020 and that he intends to run for the next seat that becomes available.

A few options have opened up for the 45-year-old surgeon, as three prominent Liberals — including the premier he replaced — don’t plan to seek re-election. But those members represent rural ridings. Furey, from the provincial capital St. John’s, would be dropping in as an outsider.

Despite historical tensions between rural and urban voters, Furey is likely favoured to win any of those three ridings, experts say, because he has the advantage of being premier.

Stephen Tomblin, a recently retired political science professor from Memorial University of Newfoundland, said the divide between urban and rural interests goes back to the days of Joey Smallwood, the province’s first premier, when “modernization was perceived as a threat.”

That dynamic still exists to some extent, he said. But voters — such as those in the riding of former premier Dwight Ball — also recognize the perks of having a powerful representative in the legislature, he added. And Furey has indicated his eyes are on Ball’s district.

“There are big benefits in terms of having a premier represent your community,” Tomblin said. “If he does run in that district in a byelection, I think that he would probably succeed.”

That doesn’t mean Furey won’t encounter challenges winning over the public as he sets about redefining priorities for the province, which faces a deficit of $2.1 billion and is reeling from recent shocks to its offshore oil industry.

Furey has already shaken up his cabinet, adding the technology sector into the natural resources portfolio and mandating the Labour Department to prioritize immigration.

In speeches he has stressed the need to move away from a “boom and bust” economy, and has said “tough decisions” will be necessary to get there.

That transition is essential, Tomblin said, in order to tackle the various crises in front of Newfoundland and Labrador, in such matters as public finances and health care.

Convincing people to embrace change is challenging, especially for rural voters who are more dependent on natural resources, Tomblin said. But Furey’s call for unity in the face of dire circumstances may win people over, he said.

Rob Greenwood, who leads the Harris Centre policy institute at Memorial University of Newfoundland, said rural residents who moved across the country to work in the resource sector have brought home money — and higher expectations of their government.

“I think rural people in Newfoundland and Labrador, for sure, have much higher expectations now, materially, than they did 15 or 20 years ago,” Greenwood said.

That makes it harder for politicians to propose spending cuts, Greenwood explained. Elected officials can win those workers over, he said, but they have to convey the province’s fiscal realities in an honest and sincere way.

“People don’t, of course, want their quality of life to go down,” he said, “and they don’t want to lose access to health care, and they don’t want to lose the road network they’ve enjoyed.”

An outsider may even have an advantage, Greenwood said, because they aren’t working with the added pressure of knowing everyone in the community personally.

But, he said, voters in any rural riding Furey chooses to run in are nonetheless “going to expect a return on their investment.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 23, 2020.

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press

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