Newfoundland and Labrador voters will head to the polls Feb. 13, a Saturday — a first for an election in the province.
Liberal Leader Andrew Furey, at a kickoff rally at Confederation Building Friday evening, referenced the province's ballooning debt, struggling oil industry and vast public service spending as he announced the general election.
"[At] no other time in our history has any generation of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians faced such a challenge," he said. "There is no precedent except the one we will set together."
More than 70 candidates have been nominated so far, representing the Liberals, Conservatives, New Democrats and the N.L. Alliance. A number of Independent candidates are also running, vying for one of the 40 seats in the House of Assembly.
New Democratic Party Leader Alison Coffin said Friday she'll campaign on the promise of bringing the priorities of every resident to the forefront, ensuring their needs are addressed in the legislature.
The NDP harbours concerns about affordability and the health-care system, she said. She expects a full slate of candidates by election day.
The provincial Tories, meanwhile, are running a campaign on job growth, which leader Ches Crosbie characterizes as the most efficient way to revive the province's floundering economy.
"As we roll out our plan in the days ahead, people will see the difference. A Progressive Conservative government, led by me, will be a job-creation machine," said Crosbie at a news conference minutes before Furey's election announcement.
"We will roll up our sleeves with investors to get projects rolling and growing. We will slice away the red tape that is tying the hands of the businesses that want to create jobs. We will drive job growth through targeted tax cuts that make it easier to hire and cheaper to live here."
Crosbie said his party will have a candidate running in each district by the end of the week.
Election timing under fire
At about 3 p.m. Friday, Furey visited Government House, where he formally asked Lt.-Gov. Judy Footeto dissolve the House of Assembly and trigger the election.
Furey was mandated by law to hold an election within 12 months of his swearing-in last summer, when he took over party leadership from former premier Dwight Ball.
The election call follows days of increased announcements by the provincial government, including new funding and programs, as well as agreements reached with various unions.
In the leadup to the decision, the likelihood of Furey calling an election now — in the middle of both an unpredictable North Atlantic winter and a pandemic — had already come under fire from the Opposition Tories and the NDP, who both said the governing Liberals should wait for the premier's economic recovery team, chaired by Moya Greene, to report first.
A progress report from the recovery team, outlining recommendations for dealing with escalating debt, is not expected until the end of February. Its final report is due April 30.
"It's a little suspicious that the premier thinks it's a good idea to call the election now, instead of waiting for these recommendations and [letting] the public judge the Liberal government based on those recommendations," Coffin said Friday.
Furey defended his decision, stressing that the non-binding recommendations will be heavily debated in the House of Assembly.
"There will always be a reason not to have an election," he said. "I think now is the best time."
Newfoundland and Labrador, though prone to show-stopping winter weather, has five active cases of COVID-19, having largely avoided the second wave afflicting much of the rest of Canada. There are comparatively few public health restrictions in place, and candidates are permitted to canvass publicly.
The first Liberal campaign event is scheduled for Saturday morning at a farmers' market in St. John's, with Furey dropping in on two more districts in the metro area later in the day.
Elections NL has issued a long list of COVID-19 guidelines for campaigning candidates.
"The democratic process will continue, just as normal life has continued in the face of this pandemic," Furey said. "It'll be different ... but we can do it safely."
He confirmed that he will tour the province on a campaign bus, as Liberal leaders have in previous elections. The party said in a release Friday night that reporters will not be permitted on the bus "due to COVID-19 protocols."
The template for campaigning during COVID-19 has already been established in this province, with Furey winning both the Liberal party leadership last summer and a byelection in Humber-Gros Morne in October.
Three provinces — Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and British Columbia — have already gone to the polls during the pandemic.
As is the case in Newfoundland and Labrador, there had been minority governments in New Brunswick and B.C.
Advance polls are scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 6. Election officials have told CBC News a weekend election allows for the full use of public buildings such as schools and avoids rush-hour voting clusters, in order to facilitate physical distancing.
The last general election took place on May 16, 2019, when the Liberal Party won 20 of 40 seats. The PCs nabbed 15 seats and the NDP held three, with Independents making up the remaining two.
Flood of promises from Liberals
The Tories this week harshly criticized the Liberals for an uptick in the number of government announcements and spending pledges.
As of 4 p.m. Friday, the Liberals had issued 33 news releases in 36 hours.
On Friday alone, various departments made cash commitments to the tune of at least $31,182,500.
Liberal politicians have promised that money to technology start-ups, municipalities and tourism operators, among other groups.
The costs related to medical program expansions also announced Friday, including an insulin pump subsidy for low-income adults, are not included in that figure.
The amount also doesn't include any costs associated with wage and salary increases in four collective bargaining agreements struck this week, on the brink of an expected election call.
The Liberal government now has agreements in place with the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the Association of Allied Health Professionals and private ambulance operators, and a tentative agreement with the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers' Association.
A large portion of the promised money will go to the idled North Atlantic refinery in Come by Chance, which the Liberal Party announced Friday will receive a grant for more than $16 million. In exchange, the refinery must ensure at least 200 jobs.
The Liberals in November suggested the possibility of funding for that refinery with conditions attached, but did not commit to any financial support until around 2 p.m., just hours before the election call.
Campaigns will rely more on social media
Despite the challenges of campaigning in winter weather and amid COVID-19 restrictions, both the PCs and the NDP have signalled their readiness.
Campaign chairs for the three largest parties have indicated they will rely more on social media and less on traditional means of reaching voters, such as door-to-door canvassing. Large-scale rallies will not be happening, nor will such staples as campaign stops at seniors' homes.
During Friday's COVID-19 briefing, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald told reporters all the province's political parties are well aware of public health's guidelines.
"I have every confidence that they will abide by those guidelines, and reduce their risk and the risk to the communities as much as possible," she said.
As for election day, Fitzgerald said voting by mail would take away the need for having to attend a polling station, but added Elections Newfoundland and Labrador is prepared to safely administer the polls.