Liberals try to resist blue wave as Newfoundland and Labrador goes to polls

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — The stage is set for a tight race Thursday between the Liberals and Tories in Newfoundland and Labrador, as incumbent Liberal Premier Dwight Ball battles to overcome a disenchanted electorate and a blue conservative wave that has been spreading across the country.

Voters will have their say in an election that party leaders have repeatedly defined as being about the need for strong leadership. But recent opinion surveys reflect a lack of enthusiasm for any party leader and a high number of undecided voters in a province facing down a bleak future. On the last day of campaigning, the two front-runners flashed smiles from quick campaign stops across the island as wearied voters continued to weigh their options. Ball was in central Newfoundland Wednesday, starting his day posing for photos with sheep at a farm in Bishop's Falls before making a series of stops with Liberal candidates and supporters.

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Progressive Conservative Leader Ches Crosbie had a packed itinerary for Wednesday, meeting with fisheries workers and seniors en route to St. John's. Crosbie posted tweets taking jabs at the premier's record. Five provincial elections over the last year have seen Liberal or NDP provinces swing to the right, and it's been an uphill battle for Ball since the former pharmacist and businessman took power in 2015.

Voters booted the long-ruling Tories four years ago, but Ball has faced a tough situation since then, with the province dealing with a rapidly aging population, poor health outcomes, outmigration and mounting debt. Also on voters' minds is the threat of hefty power rate increases to pay off the over-budget Muskrat Falls hydro project. The megaproject is currently the subject of a public inquiry into cost and schedule overruns, painting decision-makers of the previous PC government in an unfavourable light. Since the election writ dropped last month, Ball has presented himself as a tried and true leader, touting his various natural resource extraction plans and his good working relationship with the federal Liberals.

Ball's chief rival, Progressive Conservative Leader Ches Crosbie, has described himself as a "new broom" offering the Progressive Conservative party a fresh start. He's arguing that Ball hasn't fixed the province since being elected in November 2015, leaving Crosbie as the only responsible alternative. Retired Memorial University political science professor Stephen Tomblin says it's hard to predict the outcome in an election he assesses as "by-design boring."

He says the two major parties have largely avoided serious conversations about how to solve the province's various political crises, instead opting for photos snapped in coffee shops and in front of colourful campaign buses. "It's been a very boring campaign. It's been almost a non-campaign," Tomblin said by phone Wednesday. The snap election certainly got off to a slow start. The first election platform from the Liberals was released two weeks after the writ was dropped, and both the PCs and Liberals were criticized for lack of fresh material in their proposals. Tomblin says this lack of concrete policy discussions makes it hard to gauge how Crosbie is playing with voters. "He hasn't come across as particularly dynamic," Tomblin says. Ball had some momentum in the opening stretch, riding the good news story of the renewed Atlantic Accord, a crucial federal-provincial agreement on offshore oil revenues. The deal promised $2.5-billion to the province over 38 years from Ottawa’s share in the Hibernia offshore oil field, but Tomblin says playing up the relationship with Trudeau may be a misstep by Ball if voters sense they're being manipulated. Soon after the accord was announced, and one day after the Liberals tabled an optimistic 2019 budget free of tax hikes, Ball called the election.

The tight turnaround meant the budget document was never voted on, though the Liberals have said that if elected their budget would remain the same. The move garnered criticism from opponents who also criticized the snap election call for hampering their efforts to run a full slate of candidates. Only the governing Liberals have candidates running in all 40 electoral districts, with the PCs close behind at 39.

The provincial NDP under leader Alison Coffin is running just 14 candidates, and neither of the party's two representatives from the last legislative sitting are in the running this time around. The NL Alliance party, new on the ballot this year under the leadership of former provincial PC party president Graydon Pelley, is running nine candidates. The party is selling itself as an alternative to confrontational party politics. There are also nine candidates running as independents in this election as resistance to old-style party politics spreads across the province. Tomblin says this wave of independents and the high number of undecided voters points to frustration with the province's institutions. "I think the challenge or problem is that political parties have not been effective catalysts in terms of policy and decision making. They have, for the most part, been too political," he says.

"Because they've been too political people have lost faith in them very quickly."

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