In a COVID election, all bets are off now

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If the prime minister’s team thought an early election could move the Liberals into majority territory, the uncertainty in Newfoundland may give them pause.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on March 8, 2021.

Three elections and three majority governments sent the message that a government managing COVID-19 is rewarded by the voters.

That was the general school of thought when Newfoundland and Labrador called its COVID election. But the arrival of the variant crisis has changed all that.

The Newfoundland and Labrador government was forced to call an election by August. Based on previous results in British Columbia, New Brunswick, and Saskatchewan, it appeared as though the electorate would put their trust in the party that was actually managing the pandemic. In all three of those previous elections, the governing party was returned with a comfortable majority.

So Liberal Leader Andrew Furey, a medical specialist, probably thought he was on solid ground when his government called the election in Newfoundland and Labrador. But in the middle of the vote, a virus variant crept into Newfoundland, taking a province that was almost COVID-free by storm, as Mount Pearl and parts of St. John’s were hit hard with the new virus.

All of a sudden, the province went from a place that had been a spectator in the coronavirus battle to a province that was facing a distressing multiplication of a frightening variant. Questions started coming: how can you have an election when people cannot get to the polls because they are forced into a quarantine to protect community transmission of these new variants?

So, health and election officials tried to sketch out a roadmap for a safe election. The government responded with more opportunities for mail-in ballots, but in order to achieve that goal, they needed to change the shape and date of the election.

In mid-February, the chief electoral officer of Newfoundland and Labrador postponed the voting date for almost half of the voting districts in Newfoundland. The delays occurring on the Avalon Peninsula represented most urban voters in the capital’s periphery.

The cancellations were spurred because frightened election workers resigned out of fear of interacting with the public on election day, according to chief electoral officer Bruce Chaulk. And voters were also frightened about what they might face in a lineup going into the voting booths.

Unlike most other provinces, Newfoundland and Labrador had been largely free of the virus, so citizens were extremely concerned that the variant had hit them hard.

The whole election process has been somewhat odd, with the premier participating in regular briefings with the chief medical officer of health, in the middle of an election.

Progressive Conservative Leader Ches Crosbie complained about the conflict of the premier’s appearance during an election, but that complaint was overridden by citizens’ desire for information.

Crosbie and Furey both carry an impressive political pedigree. Crosbie’s father was John Crosbie, the inimitable Newfoundland minister who served in the cabinet of prime minister Brian Mulroney.

Furey’s father is former backroom Liberal organizer and now Senator George Furey, who is the current Speaker in the Senate of Canada. His uncle is Chuck Furey, who served as a minister in the government of premier Brian Tobin.

Polls still predict victory for Furey, but the confusion around the COVID election has definitely eaten into his popularity.

Newfoundlanders are experiencing their first full lockdown. After three weeks, they are getting crusty. They understand it is for the collective good, but they also want to know why an election is happening in the middle of a medical crisis.

Taking a page from the Newfoundland book, a parliamentary committee in Ottawa passed a unanimous resolution last week demanding that no election be called during a pandemic. The Procedure and House Affairs Committee, not usually known for controversial recommendations, unanimously sought a commitment from the government that there would be no election, except in the case of a lost confidence vote. New Democratic Party Leader Jagmeet Singh endorsed the resolution, promising that his party would not trigger an election.

The Tories have not chimed in, although they claim the Liberals have been trying to trigger an election.

For their part, the governing grits claim they don’t want an election, but will not allow their legislative agenda to be blocked in by the Tories. The Liberals have accused the Conservatives of trying to block pandemic-related aid legislation designed to assist individuals and small businesses.

Now that Newfoundland’s election has been torpedoed by the pandemic, the prevailing wisdom that governments are rewarded during an election is definitely at risk.

If the prime minister’s team thought an early election could move the Liberals into majority territory, the uncertainty in Newfoundland may give them pause. Pandemic elections may not be so fruitful after all.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.