Pandemic complicates Liberal leadership contest that will elect 14th N.L. premier

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball poses for a picture in his office at the Confederation Building in St. John's on Tuesday, February 18, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Daly

Newfoundland and Labrador will have a new premier in August as a Liberal leadership race disrupted by COVID-19 barrels ahead amid heightened scrutiny.

The contenders are Andrew Furey, a prominent surgeon and charity founder with family connections in Ottawa, and John Abbott, a former civil servant who has served in deputy minister roles.

Both have run physically distant campaigns in recent weeks, holding video-call town halls and maintaining a safe two-metre distance when out in public.

“It’s a lot of looking at the green dot and engaging people through Zoom or other platforms,” Furey said in a recent telephone interview.

Neither man has held elected office, and the governing Liberal caucus and cabinet have thrown their support behind Furey. The son of Sen. George Furey declared his candidacy shortly after Premier Dwight Ball announced his intention to resign in February, saying he would stay until his party chose a new leader.

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Ball’s commitment took on a new meaning as COVID-19 forced a public health state of emergency in March.

The Liberal race that had been set to pick a new leader in May was put on hold after people questioned the party’s initial determination to forge ahead despite the pandemic.

Kelly Blidook, a political science professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland, calls the convergence of events “a perfect storm of things going poorly” for governing the oil-reliant, financially troubled province.

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Now, with the first wave of the pandemic under control, voting is set to take place remotely between July 28 and Aug. 3.

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The heightened stakes of choosing a premier not elected by popular vote, in the middle of a global crisis, have focused attention on party decisions that in other circumstances might have attracted little scrutiny.

“The moderation role of the committee overseeing everything has kind of been politicized,” Blidook said. “It’s been front and centre in a way that we don’t usually see to the same extent.”

Last month, Furey’s campaign took issue with Abbott’s advertisements declaring “everyone can vote” for a new leader when, Furey’s camp argued, the vote is limited to party members and supporters.

In a decision reported by the online news outlet The Independent, the election committee did not find fault with Abbott’s ads. But it did decide to robocall newly registered party supporters to gauge their true allegiances.

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The review process led to about 1,000 people being found ineligible to vote for various reasons, though they were able to appeal the decision. Of those, 300 people – a small fraction of the 33,500 eligible voters – were knocked out over their perceived lack of support for the party’s objectives. Some who considered themselves lifelong Liberal voters took issue with a process they saw as undemocratic.

Blidook says the party’s approach to reviewing supporters was logical and fair, but the move may not have been worth the public blowback.

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“I would have still advised them not to do it,” Blidook said. “To go through the optics to purge that tiny proportion of people, I think it probably hurts the party more than it helps.”

Furey defended the complaint about Abbott’s ads, saying it was an issue of the integrity of the process, while noting the campaigns played no role in vetting supporters.

He also rejected the idea floated by some observers that the race is a “coronation” in which he is the clear front-runner backed by the party establishment.

“This is a full race, and I’m fighting to be successful,” Furey said.

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Furey said he’ll continue to work with Ottawa on solutions for the province’s financial woes and proposed the new role of a “chief economic recovery officer” to help his government “perform damage control on the ship here.”

Abbott, who has campaigned on taking a tougher negotiating stance with Ottawa on financial matters, said the party could have done more to encourage voters to sign up. But now that the vetting issue has been mostly resolved, he said he’s pleased to see more than 33,000 voters are engaged.

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“That speaks volumes to me about the interest,” Abbott said.

He acknowledged that as a candidate who has not held office before, he needs to win voters’ trust. Abbott said his policy-focused campaign and experience with government has captured people’s attention, even though the Liberal caucus supports his opponent.

“We’ll see what happens, and we’ll know that literally in three weeks,” he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 15, 2020.

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