Newfoundland and Labrador bucked a national trend last night, defying what some pollsters had predicted would be the sixth province to defeat an incumbent government in the past year. Dwight Ball’s Liberal Party held on to a minority government against Ches Crosbie’s Progressive Conservatives, despite a recent rising blue wave across the country. Federal leaders in Ottawa are likely wondering if Newfoundland and Labrador now marks a high water in a string of conservative successes or if Newfoundland and Labrador – a Liberal redoubt in the 2011 and 2015 election – is simply still a bridge too far for conservatives in 2019.
No Newfoundland and Labrador government has ever been elected to just one term and last night’s results continue that trend. Premier Ball’s decision to trigger an early election call clearly paid off. The NDP, unprepared for the campaign, had few candidates seeking election. The NDP vote collapsed last night, leaving just enough room for the Liberals to edge out the Progressive Conservatives by less than 3,000 votes provincewide. In fact, if not for five votes in Labrador, Ball would have been re-elected with a majority government (a recount is pending).
However, with a single, slim provincial victory in Atlantic Canada, it seems unlikely Justin Trudeau can bank on the East Coast to serve as a foundation for his re-election campaign this Fall. In 2015, Atlantic Canada delivered all 32 of its seats to the Trudeau Liberals – and all four provinces had elected Liberal premiers. Four years on, two of those premiers are now gone and opinion polls have the Trudeau Liberals facing significant defeat in the region this October if fortunes do not improve.
Last night’s election is a silver lining for the federal government, who maintains one of its few remaining allies at the Council of the Federation. However, there is still a clear indication of prevalent voter discontent.
What Does the Election Tell Us?
It would be straightforward to assume voters are increasingly fed-up with left-leaning governments, following a broader populist and conservative trend worldwide. However, the issue is more complex than simply a grand political shift to the right. People are anxious.
For voters in Newfoundland and Labrador, Dwight Ball’s Liberals were viewed as a party of austerity. Having inherited high hydro rate issues and mounting fiscal challenges from more than a decade of Progressive Conservative rule, Ball set about to bring spending under control. It proved unpopular, particularly after the crash in the economy for a province whose fortunes are so closely tied to the price of oil. Opposition Leader Ches Crosbie campaigned on a message of change, but he was unable to convince many voters that he would be different from previous Progressive Conservatives.
A straightforward economic anxiety problem does not tell the complete story, either. Quebec and Prince Edward Island both boasted strong economies before their premiers went down to defeat. This is cause for concern for the federal Liberals, who are overseeing Canada’s lowest unemployment in decades – and still trail in the polls. After a year of provincial electoral turmoil – one that has not been seen in Canada since the Great Depression – Newfoundland and Labrador poses a perplexing question: is it all now over?
Looking to October
Despite the provincial upsets, federal Liberals will still focus on driving home a message of strong economic leadership. This is reinforced by a recently leaked Liberal memo that argued they would rather tout the federal government’s economic successes than focus on issues like the environment. Simply put, the economy is a more tangible success story for voters. However, while the strategy has been effective in the past, there may prove to be more intangible factors at play.
Voters heading into this federal election cycle seem driven more by change than by traditional electoral issues. Recent voting patterns indicate electoral success is found through candidates who promise change – even if it’s just for change’s sake. Canada’s electoral climate is in an atypical position. Heading into October, with the Liberals’ 2015 positive change messaging no longer valid (and potentially a liability), it will be an uphill battle for the federal Liberals – the last of the incumbents in this election cycle.