Thursday, November 26, 2015

Newfoundland and Labrador election, 2015-An island of volatility

The Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador will be holding an election to its unicameral legislature, the House of Assembly, on November 30. Newfoundland and Labrador is the easternmost province of Canada. It is also the newest province, having joined Canada in 1949.

Due to its position on the east coast, Newfoundland was one of the first British colonies in America. It was granted self-government and its own legislature in 1854. Elections in the colony were between the Liberal and Conservative parties. The Conservative premier, Fredrick Carter, expressed interest in joining Canada when the nation was federated in 1867, but his defeat by the Anti-Confederation Party (mostly comprised of Liberals) in the 1869 election stopped this.

Newfoundland was granted Dominion status in 1907, a similar status to that given to Australia and New Zealand until the 1950s. This made it a technically independent country, with its own legislature, and with its own Prime Minister.  The government, however, faced the issues that happen when you have a large, sparsely-populated country; the construction of a railway across the island of Newfoundland, and its need for government support, put the government in debt. 

The Great Depression hurt Newfoundland badly, and a drop in fish prices (fish being one of Newfoundland's major commodities) as well as high debt meant that the province was in serious crisis. In the 1932 election, the United Newfoundland Party, running on a platform of handing back government of Newfoundland back to the British in exchange for financial aid, defeated the incumbent Liberal government, and the functions of government were handed to an unelected Commission.

The Americans and Canadians spent significant amounts of money on Newfoundland during the war, which improved the economy. The government then decided, now that the crisis was largely over, to hold a Constituional Convention. After discussing a range of options, including the possibility of joining the United States, the convention agreed that a referendum should be held, in which the public would be given three options; returning to dominion status, continuing the Commission of Government, or Confederation with Canada (the Convention had not wanted this option to be on the ballot, but the British insisted)

The first referendum took place in June 1948. Off an 88% turnout, 44.5% voted for Confederation, 41.1% voted for dominion status, and the remaining 14.3% voted for the continuation of the Commission.

In order to ensure that the chosen option had majority support, a runoff referendum took place in July. The top two polling options were on the ballot, and Confederation won, with 52.3% of the vote to 47.7% for Dominion status. As a result, Newfoundland joined Canada in April 1949, and the rest of Canada were welcoming.

The first election to Newfoundland's provincial legislature took place a month after Newfoundland entered Canada. The result was a win for the Newfoundland Liberal Party, under the leadership of member of the Constitutional Convention Joey Smallwood. The Liberals won 22 seats, to 5 for the Progressive Conservatives and one for an Independent.

The Liberals were re-elected easily until 1971, all under Smallwood's leadership. During this time, the Newfoundland New Democratic Party was formed. However, the New Democrats were failing to make much of an impact in Eastern Canada, and the Newfoundland branch was no exception; it did not win any seats, and it won below 8% of the vote in every election it contested. In 1971, with the Smallwood government ageing, the Progressive Conservatives won 21 seats to 20 for the Liberals and one for the Labrador Party (Labrador being the section of the province not on the island of Newfoundland). The Labrador Party member backed the Liberals, meaning that there was a 21-21 tie (and this is why odd numbers are important when you are figuring out how many seats you want in a legislature).

Smallwood resigned in January of 1972, and Conservative leader Frank Moores took over the reins of government. However, he quickly realised that it would be near-impossible to govern a province with an exact tie in the legislature, and called an election for March. This election was won by the Progressive Conservatives with a massive landslide; they won 60.5% of the vote and 33 out of 42 seats.

Following this defeat, the Liberal Party removed Smallwood as leader. In 1974, Smallwood ran against new Liberal leader Ed Roberts, but was defeated in the convention 403-298. He then left and formed the Liberal Reform Party. The same year, an election took place. At this election, the Progressive Conservatives were returned to government, with 45.5% of the vote and 30 out of 51 seats. The Liberals won 16 seats and 37.1% of the vote, Smallwood's Liberal Reform Party won 4 seats and 12% of the vote (with only 28 candidates), and the NDP won 4.3% and no seats, again with a limited slate of candidates. One Independent Liberal was elected. Had Smallwood's party not run, and had all his votes gone to the Liberals, the Liberals would have won 26 seats to 25 for the PCs.

The next few elections saw the PCs gaining strength, and consistently winning both majorities of votes and seats. 1984 saw the first elected NDP member, when Peter Fenwick was elected for the Labrador district of Menihek, with a 26% swing towards his party. In the election next year, the NDP won 14%, a gain of about 10% (although some of this was due to the NDP running substantially more candidates). However, they only won the one seat, to 36 for the PCs off 48.6% of the vote and 15 for the Liberals off 36.7% of the vote.

The next election in 1989, however, saw the defeat of the Progressive Conservatives, after the failure of a controversial greenhouse project. At this time, however, Newfoundland was experiencing significant growth; the result of substantial petroleum deposits off the coast. The previous PC premier, Brian Peckford, had been involved in conflicts with the federal government, and this would continue over the next years.

However, the election victory was far from a clean win. Despite winning 47.6% of the vote, the PCs only won 21 seats, to 31 for the Liberals off 47.2% of the vote and 4.4% for the NDP, which won no seats. The average Liberal candidate was elected with 4% fewer votes than the average elected PC candidate, which suggests that the reason the PCs lost was because their vote spread was inefficient.

The Liberals were reelected in 1993, in a victory that is potentially attributable to the landslide Liberal victory nationwide of the same year and the decision by the national Progressive Conservative government to close the cod fishery in Newfoundland due to a lack of fish, which led to the loss of tens of thousands of jobs in the province. The Liberals made minor vote gains, and the NDP won 7.4% (a gain of about 3%) and won a seat. In 1996, the Liberal government repeated this feat, winning 55% of the vote and 37 out of 48 seats, to nine for the PCs and one for an Independent and for the NDP.

Again, the Liberals were re-elected in 1999, with 49% of the vote and 32 seats, to 14 for the PCs and two for the NDP. A weak economy in the province, however, meant that in 2003, the Liberal government was defeated by the Progressive Conservatives, led by Danny Williams. Williams led the PCs to a landslide win. The party won 58% of the vote and 34 of 48 seats, to 33% and 12 seats for the Liberals and 6% and two seats for the NDP.

While the government was initially unpopular due to public service cuts, Williams' popularity soon rebounded dramatically after he was involved in a fight with Prime Minister Paul Martin involving equalisation payments. Newfoundland and Labrador wanted to keep all of its oil and gas revenue and receive equalisation payments until Newfoundland became as rich as the national average but the federal government wanted to take a share of oil and gas revenue or reduce payments. After a lengthy standoff, which included a controversial decision by Williams to stop displaying Canadian flags in the province, the government finally reached a deal, whereby Newfoundland would receive equalisation payments and would be able to keep its revenue from resources. This led to Williams becoming very popular in the newly wealthy province.

The 2007 election was therefore something of a foregone conclusion. Williams had massive support, and it was even speculated that the Progressive Conservatives would be able to win every seat, a feat that had only happened twice before in Canadian history. In the end, the PCs won 44 out of 48 seats off 69.5% of the vote. This was higher support than the Liberals had received in Prince Edward Island in 1935 (58%) and in New Brunswick in 1987 (60%), although both cases had resulted in one party winning all the seats in the legislature. The Liberals were able to hold on to three seats (two with over 60% of the vote, which may go some way to explaining why the party was still in the legislature; freakishly high support in small areas) off 21.7% of the vote, whereas the NDP won one seat off 8.5% of the vote.

Williams was involved in another public fight with Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2008, after Harper decided to cap the amount of payments Newfoundland could receive. While this was fairly popular in other provinces, Williams was furious, and decided to campaign against the Conservatives in the federal election of that year. He formed the Anything But Conservative campaign, and his party campaigned for the election of federal Liberal and NDP candidates. The campaign had dramatic effect; the Conservatives polled only 16.5% of the vote in the province, their lowest total nationwide, and won no seats.

In 2010, Williams resigned, and was replaced by Deputy Premier Kathy Dunderdale. While this was initially on an interim basis, Ms Dunderdale chose to run for PC leader, and therefore Premier, on a permanent basis. She ran in a leadership convention unopposed, and was thus therefore made premier.

The election of the next year was widely expected to be another easy win for the PCs. With a wide lead in the polls and strong growth. The Liberals were struggling to make an impact, but the NDP gained support dramatically in the late days of the campaign, and it was considered possible that they would be able to finish second. At this point, the New Democrats were gaining support nationwide, in places where they had not had much support before (like Quebec).

In the end, the NDP finished second in terms of votes, with 25%, but third in seats, with 5 seats out of 48. The Liberals won 6 seats and 19.1% of the vote, while the PCs won 37 seats and 56%. Most of the NDP seats were won in St John's, the capital city, while the Liberals were strongest in Labrador and the west of the province.

Dunderdale's government started off popular, but has declined in support since the last election. This has been due to a variety of factors; the declining price of oil, an increasing provincial deficit, and cuts to education, amongst others. One year out from the election, the government had fallen into second place in the polls, behind a surging NDP.

With her polls collapsing, Dunderdale resigned in January 2014. She was replaced on an interim basis by Deputy Premier Tom Marshall. The first attempt to elect a permanent leader took place in March of the same year. Energy businessman Frank Coleman was the only candidate, but declined the leadership for family reasons, and Health Minister Paul Davis was elected narrowly in September.

However, the New Democrats eventually fell back. This was due to a leadership scandal that took place in late 2013 when NDP leader Lorraine Michael was criticised by her caucus (her entire caucus), who sent a letter asking that a leadership convention be held. Two members of the caucus backed out on the letter, while the other two stood by their words and left the party, later joining the Liberals.

A leadership review held in May 2014 allowed Michael to stay in office, but after dismal performances in the Conception Bay by-election (where there was a 21% swing against the NDP candidate) and the Trinity-Bay de Verde by-election (where the NDP candidate lost 8%), as well as fast declining polls, she resigned. In a leadership election, union leader Earle McCurdy was elected leader by 68%. McCurdy improved the party's polling for a short time, but in recent weeks they have fallen back, and their support has gone to the Liberals.

The Liberals have performed well over the past few years. Following the 2011 election, Kevin Aylward resigned, and was replaced by Dwight Ball, the member for the rural district of Humber Valley. The party has been leading the polls since August 2013, and has gained ten seats through defections and by-elections. The recent Conception Bay by-election saw a 42% swing towards the Liberals, and the Humber East by-election resulted in a 47% swing towards the Liberal candidate.

Expected results, and what they mean

It looks almost certain that the Liberals will win this election. The poll aggregator site ThreeHundredEight projects that the Liberals will win 57% of the vote and 30 out of 40 seats. Despite Canadian opinion polling's previous poor performances, it would take a significant fail on the part of pollsters to call this election wrong.

While part of this is local factors, another part is that the election has been timed well for the Liberal Party. It takes place during the honeymoon of the federal Trudeau Liberal government, which is not insubstantial (a recent poll gave the Liberals 55% of the vote to 25% for the Conservatives and 12% for the NDP). The election of the Trudeau government boosted the support of the provincial Liberals substantially.

Another impact of this election regards the NDP, and their position in Atlantic Canada. While the party gained significant support in Atlantic Canada in 1997, they have no seats in the area at this point. In terms of provincial governments, too, the NDP has not done so well in recent elections. Despite positive polls in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, the party won no seats in both elections. They had more luck in Nova Scotia, winning government there for one term, but are now in third place. A loss in this election would represent another setback for the NDP in this region.

The loss for the Progressive Conservatives does not, as happened in Alberta, mean that they will be likely shut out of power for a long time. While the voters of Newfoundland seem to like strong government and large majorities, the performance of the last term suggests that a large majority will not make the Liberals invulnerable.

No comments:

Post a Comment

The Editor reserves the right to delete any comments on grounds including, but not limited to, irrelevant, offensive and threatening.