N.L. Liberals show support as physician enters race to become 14th premier

Dr. Andrew Furey officially enters the race to replace Dwight Ball as leader of the provincial Liberal party and Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador at the ALT Hotel in St. John's on March 3, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Douglas Gaulton

Newfoundland and Labrador’s outgoing premier says he won’t endorse any one candidate vying to replace him, but many of Dwight Ball’s ministers sent a different message this week.

Almost every member of Ball’s cabinet, along with a handful of backbenchers and federal MPs, stood behind Andrew Furey on Tuesday as the orthopedic surgeon and charity CEO signed nomination papers for his Liberal leadership bid.

Interested candidates have until Friday at noon to submit a nomination package, including 50 signatures and a paid fee of $25,000, to enter the leadership race that will determine the 14th premier of the province.

The eventual winner won’t be accepting an easy job. The province faces immense financial challenges, with mounting debt, stalling population growth, a rapidly aging population and poor health indicators.

READ MORE: Winter weather delays opening of Newfoundland and Labrador legislature

Ball’s successor will also have to contend with fallout from the costly, unfinished Muskrat Falls hydro project that accounts for a third of the province’s debt and has prompted refinancing talks with Ottawa to prevent its runaway costs from inflating residents’ electricity bills.

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Amanda Bittner, a political science professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland, said the next Liberal leader will step into a job “nobody really wants.”

“This is not going to be a guy that goes down in history as the most beloved premier of all time, there’s no way,” said. “That’s a risky choice to take on a personal level.”

Furey, 44, is one of two people to enter the race since Ball announced his resignation last month. John Abbott, a former civil servant and current CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Newfoundland and Labrador division, announced his candidacy on Thursday, at a more low-key but well-attended launch event.

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball poses for a picture in his office at the Confederation Building in St. John’s on February 18, 2020. The contest to replace Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball as leader of the province’s Liberal Party has begun. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Daly.

Both men have said they are motivated by a desire to guide their home province through a difficult period and ensure it’s a place where young people can confidently build their lives.

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So far no elected Liberals have expressed interest in the top job. Many have thrown their support behind Furey, who has never held elected office but has volunteered with the party for decades and comes from a political family.

In a Tuesday speech, Furey recalled his childhood campaigning across the province with his father George Furey, current Speaker of the Senate, and uncle Chuck Furey, a former provincial legislator.

Bernard Davis, the province’s minister of tourism, had been mulling his own leadership bid last week. But on Tuesday he posed for a photo alongside the candidate in front of a “Furey 2020” sign.

Click to play video: 'N.L. premier denies reports Liberal party pushed him out'
N.L. premier denies reports Liberal party pushed him out

Davis said it wasn’t a co-ordinated choice among members of the Liberal caucus to support Furey, but noted it was easy to back someone who has been supporting the party for so long.

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“We grew up in the Liberal party together,” Davis said. “His ideals match my ideals, and I figured the best thing to do for the party and for the province is to support Andrew.”

Abbott said he wasn’t surprised to see the Liberals’ show of support for Furey, given his longstanding party involvement. But the 63-year-old said he’s confident his policy-focused campaign and experience in various government roles, including deputy minister of health and community services, will set him apart from his rival.

“There’s a lot of interest and momentum in our campaign,” Abbott said by phone.

READ MORE: N.L. Premier Dwight Ball denies he’s walking away as going gets tough

Bittner said the parameters of the race, with an 11-day window for nominations and a high cost of entry, favour candidates like Furey who are independently wealthy or well-connected.

“He’s a prominent person in the province,” she said. “He has access to social networks that your average Newfoundlander and Labradorian does not have. And that’s not a critique of him – that’s just a fact.”

She said such barriers can deter a wider pool of people from running, at a time when diverse perspectives on the province’s challenges could bring refreshing, much-needed solutions.

Click to play video: 'N.L. Premier Dwight Ball steps down'
N.L. Premier Dwight Ball steps down

Progressive Conservative Party Leader Ches Crosbie criticized the lack of spending limits and transparency in the Liberal race last week, saying the party “has put the premiership of the province up for auction.”

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Furey and Abbott have indicated they will disclose the names of their donors. Furey said he plans to limit his campaign spending to $250,000 and Abbott said Thursday he would spend significantly less.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 5, 2020.

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