Newfoundlanders and Labradorians will head to the polls on Monday, with the provincial Liberals expected to win a landslide victory against the governing Progressive Conservatives.
Paul Davis is the fourth PC premier since Danny Williams first took office in 2003. Davis has struggled to reverse the party's flagging popularity, which dropped precipitously under Williams' successor Kathy Dunderdale.
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Liberal sweep possible
If a complete sweep occurred, it would be the third time in Canadian history where no opposition legislators were elected in a provincial poll. However, on Thursday ThreeHundredEight.com was projecting a combined 10 seats for the PCs and NDP.
The Progressive Conservatives once commanded extraordinarily high popularity. At the time of his surprise resignation in 2010, Williams was often cited as the most popular premier in Canada, having led the PCs to win 44 of the 48 seats at play in the 2007 election. However, a long road of missteps and unpopular moves by successors combined to damage the party's reputation. The Liberal caucus gradually enlarged, in part due to defections from both the PCs and New Democrats, with gains from the latter happening as the result of a dramatic caucus dispute.
PC power outage
In particular, Dunderdale's perceived handling of massive power outages caused her image to suffer. Equally poorly received were her decisions to delay opening the House of Assembly and, later, to cancel a meeting about search and rescue services with the family of an Aboriginal boy who drowned in rural Labrador. More recently, the province's auditor general found last year that Transport Minister Nick McGrath "knowingly withheld" information from Premier Tom Marshall (the interim PC leader after Dunderdale) about the cancellation of a highway paving contract. The cancellation proved controversial because Frank Coleman, a politically unknown businessman set to win the PC leadership, was a former CEO and could have benefited from the cancellation.
Since Williams' departure, the government's refusal to accept a formal debate on the massive Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project, the revelation that government MHAs routinely attempted to influence online opinion polls, and unpopular information access legislation all contributed to a perception that the government was tone deaf.
An arrogant government
Gerry Rogers, an NDP MHA in St. John's, echoed that assessment in a phone interview with Ricochet. "This has been an arrogant government," Rogers said, going on to detail some of the PCs' record. "This has been a government that expelled me from the House of Assembly for being part of a Facebook group."
In April 2013, Rogers was thrown out of the House of Assembly for refusing to apologize for threatening comments made by someone in a Facebook group of which she was an unwitting member. The expulsion was widely condemned as either motivated by partisanship or reflecting a severe misunderstanding of the Internet.
The following month, MHAs heckled and laughed at Rogers when she asked the government to reinstate a specialized domestic violence court. "Both were incidents that helped further cement a perception that, in the words of The Telegram's Pam Frampton, "[Tom Marshall] and his government are too busy laughing to hear us."
Recession's victims abound
Rogers also highlighted the province's challenging economic situation and a growing number of seniors in poverty.
"We have one of the highest rates of seniors receiving OAS and GIS," Rogers said, referring to Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement, federal benefits that, for single, widowed or divorced pensioners, provide a combined maximum of $1342.78 per month. "But I'm hearing so many stories about and meeting so many seniors who are slipping into poverty — and it's absolutely heartbreaking."
Chris Bruce, the NDP candidate running against Premier Davis in Topsail-Paradise, related similar accounts of hardship in a phone interview with Ricochet on Wednesday evening. Bruce is a former provincial leadership candidate and executive member.
"There was one pretty hard [canvassing visit] where a man asked about the prescription drug program. He was making too much money to apply for the low income assistance drug program.... The cost of drugs was so high, he was just treading water. And a lot of people are in that situation."
Currently, single individuals under age 65 lose eligibility for Newfoundland and Labrador's low income drug plan when their net annual income exceeds $27,151.
Rogers went on to connect the poverty rate to the province's housing crisis and criticized provincial Liberal plans to sell off unspecified Crown assets and land in order to raise revenue.
She expressed that plans to sell government-owned properties, which could be used to develop affordable housing, are short-sighted. In 2008, federal Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff criticized the Conservative government for promising to "sell government assets for cash, without saying which assets and for how much."
Post-oil boom blues
Alison Coffin, a St. John's-based economist and the NDP candidate for the city's riding of Waterford Valley, spoke to Ricochet on Wednesday. When asked about the government's record, she highlighted mismanagement of the province's short-lived boom times. The NDP made gains in St. John's in 2011, electing four of its five MHAs there. Outside of western Labrador, it has been one of the party's few areas of concentrated support.
"We've found that the current support base is a collection of individuals who are historical NDP supporters, and supporters who have for one reason or another been drawn to the party because there's an alignment of values," wrote Eddy St. Coeur, Coffin's campaign co-chair, in an email to Ricochet on Thursday.
Earlier this year, Coffin pointed out that the province is in a recession, in part from the effects of dropping oil prices.
"If you look at what's been happening, we've had windfall royalties coming in. Huge, huge increases in our revenues coming in, which left us with lots of options, lots and lots of options. What the PCs have decided to do with much of that is [that] some money got spent on infrastructure but the large chunk of that money was put into Nalcor [an energy-focused Crown corporation]. And while Nalcor is excellent, it still has a huge cost associated with the Muskrat Falls project. And right now, a lot of the arguments for Muskrat Falls were based on much, much higher prices of oil."
The Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project, currently under construction in Labrador, has dominated the province's political discussions in recent years. The project, meant to create revenue through energy sales and to meet demand for the province's future domestic needs, has been widely controversial, in particular due to disagreements about its long-term viability.
"What we've done is we've tied ourselves into very large expenditures on this major hydroelectric project," Coffin said. "So now that the price of oil has dropped, we're in a situation where we're going to have huge expenditures that we really can't afford right now. And that's a bit of a problem."
The province's economy, traditionally reliant on the fishery, has become dependent on the oil industry.
Coffin went on to lament that the PC government has largely failed to diversify the economy but also criticized Liberal plans to increase revenue through new business attraction as untenable. Premier Davis has also claimed that the Liberals' fiscal plans are misleading, while an editorial by the Telegram, citing an analysis by Memorial University mathematics professor Tom Baird, described Liberal plans to increase revenue as working through "magic" and "in the realm of flying reindeer and dancing broomsticks."
At dissolution, standings in the House of Assembly were 28 Progressive Conservatives, 16 Liberals, 3 New Democrats and one vacancy. Candidates will compete for 40 seats (down from 48) as a result of controversial changes to the Electoral Boundaries Act. The legislation was rushed through in an all-night session in January and was condemned by a group of academics as "a product of partisan political maneuvering."
Emails to PC candidate Judy Manning, Liberal candidate Gerry Byrne and the media inquiries pages of both parties were not returned by publication time.