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 almost 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.
The tepid Liberal win also marks the first time in the province’s history that a governing party has failed to win at least three consecutive majorities.
On the national level, the Newfoundland and Labrador Liberals ended 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, won his riding in western Newfoundland. Crosbie, the 65-year-old son of former federal cabinet minister John Crosbie, also won his riding in St. John’s.
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 of the campaign. 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, just ahead of the Tories with 43 per cent. The NDP were a distant third at six per cent.
Ball promised to balance books
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, draft a new autism action plan and lift the age cap for those who qualify for insulin pumps.
As for Crosbie, it appears the electorate wasn’t won over by his pledge to do things differently.
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 Tories 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.
Debate over the Muskrat Falls project energized a televised leaders debate earlier this month.
When Ball asked Crosbie if he was proud of his party’s role in the Muskrat Falls project, Crosbie countered by suggesting Ball should apologize for the wildly lopsided deal former Liberal premier Joey Smallwood signed with Quebec to build the Churchill Falls hydroelectric project in Labrador.
Ball shot back: “The Muskrat Falls project has put quite the burden on Newfoundlanders and Labradorians and Mr. Crosbie .... still will not say that that project was a mistake. Mr. Crosbie and his PC friends left our province in turmoil.”
Crosbie’s campaign had its share of glitches — like the time he planned to make an announcement at the legislature but was kicked out for failing to make the proper arrangements.
As well, the party faced embarrassment when Crosbie announced Tory candidate Michael Normore would be ejected from the 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.
The NDP, led by former economics professor Alison Coffin, nominated only 14 candidates. Coffin won her riding in St. John’s.
As for Ball, his party had to contend with the fact that the province’s economy has sputtered since world oil prices plummeted in late 2014.
In 2015, when his party was elected to govern, Ball promised no public service layoffs and no tax increases. But the province’s bleak economic outlook forced him to break both of those promises, causing a public backlash.
With a population of 525,000, the province’s debt is more than $13 billion _ the heaviest per capita burden in the country.
In 2018, it was the only province to record a drop in gross domestic product, and its debt-to-GDP ratio — considered a good benchmark of economic health — stood at 47 per cent, by far the worst in Canada.
And even though the population of the three Maritime provinces is growing at its fastest pace in decades, Newfoundland and Labrador’s is declining.