The surgeon and the yogi: N.L.'s 'opposite-day' election has analyst shaking his head

·4 min read

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — Typically in Canadian elections, Conservatives promise to balance budgets while Liberals accuse them of hiding secret agendas to cut public services — but not in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Progressive Conservative Leader Ches Crosbie says he has no plans to balance the provincial budget within a four-year mandate if he's elected on Feb. 13. Instead, the Tory leader says he'll help grow the economy through government spending.

Crosbie's position is a rebuttal to what he claims is Liberal Leader and incumbent Premier Andrew Furey's secret plan for budget cuts.

The reversal of traditional roles among the two main parties is beffudling to Tim Powers, managing director of polling and market research company Abacus Data.

"I feel like I'm watching and living in what a toddler would describe as 'Opposite Day,'" he said in an interview Monday. "It really is a strange thing to see the Conservatives accusing the Liberals of effectively having a hidden agenda."

He adds: "Somewhere Stephen Harper is smiling," referring to similar allegations that were lobbed for years by the Liberals against the former Conservative prime minister.

Newfoundland and Labrador has always marched to the beat of its own drum, Powers said, adding that the province's distinct nature is likely not going to change in a winter election held in the midst of a global pandemic.

Polls had Furey with a robust lead over Crosbie before the Liberal leader called the election on Jan. 15. Crosbie is working to close that gap by promising to increase government spending and by pressuring Furey to release what he calls the "Greene report" before the Feb. 13 vote.

The so-called Greene report is what Crosbie calls the review of government services and spending undertaken by an economic recovery team assembled by Furey in the fall. The team is chaired by Moya Greene, a St. John's-born businesswoman with a reputation for privatization. A draft of the report is due two weeks after election day.

Crosbie's approach is "risky," Powers said, adding that the hidden agenda narrative might be hard for the public to swallow.

Furey, meanwhile, has made a series of low-cost and low-key promises, while skirting discussion about the province's troubling financial situation, which includes a $16.4-billion net debt, Powers said. Even before the pandemic hit, the province's flirtation with insolvency was big enough news that Manitoba millionaire Walter Schroeder financed a national musical theatre production about it.

The Liberal leader's strategy could pay off, Powers said. "Elections are no time to talk about policy," he joked. "And that's not entirely unusual in Newfoundland (and Labrador) campaigns; they can be about personalities."

Furey is a young surgeon who founded Team Broken Earth, a non-profit that sends volunteer health-care workers to Haiti and to a few other countries. He has connections to the federal government through his father, George Furey, the current Speaker of the Senate. During a campaign stop in Labrador on Tuesday, Furey told reporters he wants to remain premier because he wants to rebuild the province's prosperity.

Crosbie is a lawyer and the son of notoriously outspoken politician John Crosbie, and he's not without his quirks: In his 20s, he lived on a kibbutz in northern Israel and he's a noted practitioner of yoga. "More recently, I got into doing Kundalini-style yoga," he said in a recent interview.

Powers says the Tory leader has a few more public relations hurdles to overcome than Furey does. Crosbie famously refused to concede the 2019 election and then apologized, admitting later that he was perhaps not the most charismatic candidate.

Crosbie said he sees a "Progressive Conservative" as a progressive in social policy and conservative in spending — as long, he said, as the province can afford it. "And we can't afford it at the moment," he said.

Powers says voters are looking for more than accusations of hidden agendas and campaign promises that downplay the province's financial problems.

"There are real issues that all of the leaders and all of the parties should be talking about," Powers said. "The Newfoundland and Labrador public is not dumb, and they know that."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 26, 2021.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press