Liberals suspending leadership contest, order candidates to stop campaigning

The Liberal Party has ordered an indefinite suspension of a contest that would have seen a new leader and premier of Newfoundland and Labrador — either John Abbott or Andrew Furey — selected on May 9.

That means Premier Dwight Ball, who announced his intention to resign a month ago, will likely continue his leadership for the foreseeable future.

Senior party officials made the announcement by teleconference late Monday morning, with all campaigning ordered to cease by noon.

A further recommendation will be made to the party's executive by the election planning committee on May 1, but even if it is resumed at that date, the earliest a vote could take place would be early July.

Liberal bickering and resignations

The decision follows days of internal Liberal bickering that included a divided caucus, accusations of insensitivity and opportunism by the party from one candidate, and the resignation of the chief returning officer for the contest.

"We have anguished over this decision," said Judy Morrow, past-president of the Liberal Party and current executive member of the board of directors.

"We're in uncertain times," added John Samms, co-chair of the leadership election planning committee, who described the decision to suspend the contest as an "extraordinary measure" in the face of "extraordinary circumstances."

Terry Roberts/CBC

It's an about-face from a decision made last Wednesday, when Samms and Morrow announced the leadership contest would proceed with online and telephone voting, with a winner declared on May 9.

But shortly after that decision was announced, a public health emergency was declared in a bid to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Abbott blasted the party, saying it was putting politics ahead of the needs of citizens, while Furey supported the concept of "democracy from home."

But by Friday, with Liberals growing increasingly divided, and chief returning officer Rodney Mercer quitting that position in protest, Furey changed tack and said he would support a suspension of the campaign.

After many hours of discussions, a new approach was revealed Monday morning.

"We were acutely aware of the public commentary and deliberating on these matters has been very difficult," said Morrow.

"Over the last number of days we've put a lot of thought into how to properly suspend this leadership election to protect the democratic balance while keeping the safety of our residents as a priority."

Samms said the committee was driven not by politics but by the need to balance democracy with the need for citizens to focus on their own health and well-being.

'A need to pause from politics'

Samms acknowledged there was considerable political "blowback," but said he would rather be criticized for being too slow to suspend the democratic process than be seen as moving too quickly to shut down the process.

"We're very mindful of the precedent that is set by suspending indefinitely a democratic electoral process," Samms stated, but said the "angst and anxiety" being felt throughout the province is proof there is "a need to pause from politics."

Shortly after the suspension, Furey issued a statement saying he supports the decision to postpone the leadership contest

"The best approach is to re-evaluate the situation regularly," said Furey in the statement.

With the campaign now suspended, Furey, who is an orthopedic trauma surgeon, said he plans to focus on supporting his health-care colleagues.

Abbott told CBC he's pleased with the decision.

"I'm glad to see everybody has come on side. It was the only reasonable thing to do," said Abbott.

In the interim, Abbott said he plans to continue working on policy matters.

All campaigning must stop

Meanwhile, the decision on whether to resume the leadership contest after May 1 will depend on whether the current public health emergency related to the COVID-19 pandemic remains in place, and whether any other "extraordinary public health measures," including a provincewide state of emergency, is in effect.

As of noon, the party has ordered Furey and Abbott to cease any campaigning indefinitely, and any violation of the terms of the suspension could result in discipline, including disqualification from the contest.

Neither candidate is permitted to accept any donations during the suspension, and are prohibited from doing any interviews that have any political overtones.

Both teams have also been ordered to make their campaign social media accounts inactive, and remove any campaign themes or messages from their personal social media accounts.

Voter registration is also suspended as of noon Monday.

The rules of the suspension were finalized over the weekend, with both campaign teams endorsing the terms.

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