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N.L. Liberals battle to stay in power despite province's 'difficult time'

Dwight Ball, Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, arrives to appear as a witness at a Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources in the Senate of Canada Building in Ottawa on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019. A provincial budget is being tabled Tuesday in Newfoundland and Labrador, but it will surprise no one if it doesn't make it to a vote. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — A provincial budget is being tabled Tuesday in Newfoundland and Labrador, but it will surprise no one if it doesn’t actually make it to a vote in the House of Assembly.

The youngest province has been in pre-election mode for weeks, since Premier Dwight Ball promised to send voters to the polls before the end of June.

The Liberal government has been making a flurry of spending announcements — including one Monday about mitigating power hikes — and Ball has refused to commit to waiting for the budget to pass before calling a vote.

Ball, a former pharmacist and businessman, was first elected in 2015 as frustrated voters booted the long-ruling Tories from power. But he’s had a rough ride, mostly because of a financial situation so dire it has prompted national headlines raising the spectre of a potential provincial bankruptcy.

“It’s just been a difficult time in Newfoundland and Labrador,” said Margaret Brigley, CEO of Corporate Research Associates (CRA), a Halifax-based market research firm.

Ball’s main rival is Tory Leader Ches Crosbie, the lawyer son of former federal cabinet minister John Crosbie, the one-time lieutenant-governor and a towering figure in the province.

A March CRA poll suggested a close race between the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives, with Ball enjoying a slight edge.

Brigley said the Liberals appear to be showing some resiliency, despite the financial stresses on the province and its people.

The government has struggled to get its finances on track after years of significant deficits and concern over health care costs, expensive rural services, steady outmigration and a rapidly aging population.

But the Liberals have been trying to change the narrative.

A key announcement came April 1: The provincial and federal governments unveiled the revised Atlantic Accord, a crucial agreement on offshore resource revenues that promised $2.5 billion in federal money funnelled to the province over 38 years.

Kelly Blidook, a political science professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland, said the announcement showcased the often mutually beneficial relationship between the federal and provincial Liberals.

With Monday’s power rates announcement and Tuesday’s budget, Blidook said Ball could find a path to victory.

“I don’t get the impression Dwight Ball is extremely well-liked, he’s not particularly charismatic and he doesn’t really connect in the way other leaders sometimes do … but at the same time I think he’s in a safe spot, I think he’s kind of grown into the role,” Blidook said. 

“I don’t think people are happy with the state of the province necessarily, but I think all things considered they see someone who they feel reasonably trusting towards to continue governing.”

The ongoing inquiry into the Muskrat Falls hydro megaproject in Labrador could also move votes, and not necessarily against the incumbent government.

A parade of former PC cabinet ministers and premiers have taken the witness stand amid testimony on alleged mismanagement that led to excessive cost and schedule overruns, with Ball himself scheduled to testify in July.

Crosbie and his party are still suffering from their association with the former Tory government that sanctioned Muskrat Falls.

Retired political science professor Stephen Tomblin said Crosbie’s best hope is to play on voters’ frustrations with the status quo.

“I think if he’s going to have any success at all it will be that people (will) just be revolting against the Liberals,” Tomblin said of Crosbie. 

“His strength is with his legal background. He’s capable of framing issues or problems in way which may attract more attention.” 

The provincial NDP, once a growing force, has mostly failed to rebound from internal strife that saw several officials and staff leave in 2013.

The NDP holds just two seats, and neither sitting member is running in the election. The CRA poll suggested the NDP is a distant third.

New NDP Leader Alison Coffin, an economics professor at Memorial, was acclaimed this spring after an uncontested leadership contest.

The CRA poll also suggested that about a quarter of the electorate had not yet decided how they would cast their ballots. Tomblin said this points to frustration with the province’s challenges — where many residents are voting with their feet by moving away.

“There’s this … sense of, obviously, crises and problems which are going to be here for a while, and associated with that I think there’s a sort of lack of faith in the political system,” he said.

“There’s this sense that if he (Ball) squeaks in, he needs to be much more aggressive with dealing with the problems than he has been in the first term.”

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press