#EveryElectionProject: Newfoundland and Labrador
Capsules on Newfoundland and Labrador's elections from The Weekly Writ
Every installment of The Weekly Writ includes a short history of one of Canada’s elections. Here are the ones I have written about elections and leadership races in Newfoundland and Labrador.
This and other #EveryElectionProject hubs will be updated as more historical capsules are written.
1982 Newfoundland and Labrador election
Peckford wins big for the PCs
April 6, 1982
In 1982, the era of Liberal rule under Joey Smallwood was already a decade in Newfoundland’s past. The Progressive Conservatives had governed the province since Smallwood’s defeat and had already changed leaders once after a 36-year-old Brian Peckford succeeded Frank Moores shortly before the 1979 provincial election.
But after less than three years in office, Peckford was still struggling with a sluggish economy and disputes with the federal government over offshore resource development.
So, in a television address Peckford announced he was calling an election to be held just three weeks later in order to send a message to Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government.
“What I need now, he said, “is a clear mandate which will show Ottawa that you do support my administration and the stand we are taking.”
The federal government was claiming full control over offshore resource development. Instead, Peckford proposed revenue-sharing between St. John’s and Ottawa and said he would make it the one issue of the election.
With every incumbent PC MHA running again in a quick campaign, the Progressive Conservatives held all the advantages. Nevertheless, Peckford had to defend his decision to call an early election only 2.5 years after the last one.
Len Stirling, the Liberal leader, charged that the issue for voters wasn’t the control of offshore resources but whether Newfoundlanders wanted to “go to war or go to work.” He accused the PCs of ignoring more immediate issues like the fate of the inshore fishery or the mining industry on the island, and proposed a less confrontational approach with the feds.
The opposition, which included the New Democrats under Peter Fenwick, tried to make the campaign about other issues and faced off with Peckford in a televised debate that got less than rave reviews — The Daily News editorial had only this to say: “Blah.”
But attempts to make the campaign about the immediate joblessness scourging the province rather than the resources that would only start paying off years down the road were largely unsuccessful, especially when Peckford announced his own measures late in the campaign to try to support the fishery.
The anti-Ottawa sabre-rattling was very effective, and on April 6, 1982 the Progressive Conservatives won what was their biggest victory at the time, and one that has only since been surpassed once (by Danny Williams in 2007).
With turnout jumping to 78%, the PCs secured 44 seats, a gain of 11 over their performance in the 1979 election, entirely at the expense of the Liberals outside the Avalon Peninsula, which the PCs had already swept the last time. The party was also up 11 points in its vote share, capturing 61% of ballots cast.
The Liberals suffered their worst defeat up to that time, dropping 11 seats to just eight and falling six percentage points to only 35% support. Stirling was one of the defeated Liberals, and he announced his intention to resign.
Fenwick’s New Democrats ran less than half of the slate of candidates as they had in 1979 and accordingly saw their share of the vote drop by four points to 4%. The NDP placed second in only two ridings, and in neither case were they even close to winning.
It was a big, sweeping victory for Peckford which, he argued, gave him the powerful mandate he needed in his negotiations with the federal government.
“Newfoundland speaks with one voice,” he said on election night, “when we say that one day the sun will shine and have-not will be no more.”
But Peckford would have no success in renegotiating its deal with Quebec over revenues from power generation in the Upper Churchill, and the cod stocks would collapse a few years after his departure as premier. The strong mandate voters gave him in 1982 did nothing to help him with the Trudeau-Turner Liberals, and he would have to wait until the arrival of Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government in 1984 for Canada and Newfoundland to sign an agreement that made the two levels of government joint partners in developing the oil and gas fields off the coast.
And it was not until 1997 that oil would begin to flow at Hibernia, 15 years after the “one-issue” Newfoundland election of 1982.
1989 Newfoundland and Labrador election
Clyde Wells in, Tom Rideout out
April 20, 1989
After 17 years in government and a decade of Brian Peckford in the premier’s office, the Progressive Conservatives in Newfoundland made a change in 1989. In a leadership contest that pitted five cabinet ministers against each other, it was the youngest at 40 years of age — Tom Rideout — who emerged as the winner.
Rideout, who was “gifted with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's broad chin but none of his rhetorical flourishes,” took over a province (and a party) that faced many challenges. There were the collapsing cod stocks, the continued delays in getting the Hibernia oil project up and running, expected cuts to federal transfers as the Mulroney government tightened its belt, and the $22 million money-pit Sprung Greenhouse project that would earn Rideout the sobriquet “Mr. Cucumber” on the campaign trail.
Rideout had pledged that he would seek a mandate of his own as soon as possible, and promised that his would be a leaner, more frugal administration — something he signalled immediately when he requested the resignation of four cabinet ministers and didn’t replace them.
But after so long in government and fresh off the heels of a closely-fought leadership race, the Progressive Conservatives had plenty of baggage and were riven by fissures from the leadership contest.
Nevertheless, with an internal poll giving his PCs a 21-point lead over the opposition Liberals, Rideout dissolved the House of Assembly about a week after he was sworn in as premier, kicking off a three-week election campaign.
The Newfoundland Liberals, who hadn’t won a vote since the days of Joey Smallwood, were now under the leadership of Clyde Wells, a former member of Smallwood’s cabinet.
Wells had returned to politics after a 16-year hiatus to take over the Liberal Party in 1987, being enticed in part by a $50,000 annual stipend provided to him from party coffers. Wells was criticized for this, and had to promise that he’d forego the bonus if elected premier.
Still, the Liberals were optimistic heading into the campaign. They were united behind Wells and organized, having all of their candidates nominated before Rideout’s PCs.
Wells promised a series of new programs targeted at equalizing services between rural and urban areas in the province. He had to spend a great deal of the campaign on the western coast of Newfoundland fighting to win the riding of Humber East, his old seat, taking on deputy premier Lynn Verge in the process.
The campaign injected some new, unexpected energy into Wells, and the crowds he attracted were moved by his rhetoric. Speaking in Corner Brook, he said “there's not a person here who doesn't have a brother or a sister or a son or a daughter who had to leave because there hasn't been any opportunity in this province to make a living in the last 10 years.”
Tapping into those emotions revolving around emigration and the economic struggles in Newfoundland, Wells laid the blame at the feat of the long-in-the-tooth PC government.
Also needling Rideout was the New Democratic Party under the newly-minted leadership of the “professorial” Cle Newhook. The NDP, though, was low on funds and Newhook had to limit his campaign to the St. John’s area, where he was running for a seat and where the only incumbent NDP MHA was on the ballot.
A TV debate settled little, with Wells and Newhook keeping Rideout on the defensive.
The Newfoundland PCs got little help from the federal government in the midst of the campaign, as the Mulroney PCs agreed to let the French increase their fishing hauls off the coast of the province, delayed signing an agreement that would have funded Hibernia and announced cuts to unemployment insurance in their federal budget. A late campaign visit by federal cabinet minister John Crosbie to announce new spending in St. John’s didn’t seem to do much good.
The PCs lacked incumbents in almost a dozen ridings and their campaign seemed stilted and unimaginative compared to the Liberals’ well-calibrated machine. The party was also dogged by a case involving sexual assault by social workers in western Newfoundland and rumours that the PC government had tried to cover it up.
But it was those cucumbers at the Sprung Greenhouse that were perhaps the biggest symbol of the PCs’ struggles. A Liberal ad, featuring a shrivelling cucumber, concluded with the message “Enough is enough. Vote Liberal for a real change."
The final polls of the campaign showed either a neck-and-neck race between the two parties or a PC advantage. But the momentum clearly appeared to be on the Liberal side.
When the ballots were counted, the result was close — at least in the vote count. The Liberals finished with 31 seats, a gain of 16 since the 1985 provincial election. The party captured 47.2% of the vote, up 10 points, but that still put the Liberals narrowly behind the PCs, who were down a single point to 47.6%.
However, the PCs dropped 15 seats and ended up with just 21, as the Liberals picked up eight seats in and around St. John’s and won four more seats from the party elsewhere on the Avalon Peninsula. Liberal gains were also scored in the north and west of the island — though not in Humber East, where Wells fell 143 votes short of Verge.
Rideout was re-elected with 82% of the vote in Baie Verte-White Bay, and said he intended to “lead this party vigorously into the 1990s”, though he would resign in early 1991.
The NDP was shutout and saw its share of the vote fall 10 points to just 4.4%. Newhook would stay on until 1992.
The Liberals were finally back in power after sitting in the opposition for nearly two decades, and they’d remain in office until 2003. In the immediate aftermath of the 1989 election, however, Wells’ win marked a shift in the national campaign to pass the Meech Lake Accord. Wells opposed it, and his victory gave new energy to the drive to see Meech Lake go down to defeat. When it did, it was another nail in the coffin of Brian Mulroney’s PC government — a nail Mulroney helped hammer in when he failed to make things easier for Tom Rideout and his cucumbers.
1999 Newfoundland and Labrador election
N.L. Liberals win four in a row
February 9, 1999
As Newfoundland and Labrador entered the last year of the 1990s, the province had been governed by the Liberals for a decade. But its energetic premier, Brian Tobin, had only been in office since 1996, when he led the Liberals to a big victory after replacing fellow Liberal Clyde Wells in the top job.
Only three years into his own term, Tobin claimed he needed a new electoral mandate to back-up his negotiations with Quebec over Churchill Falls and his showdown with nickel company Inco over a mining project in Labrador. That made these two resource projects the focus of the short 23-day election campaign.
Against him, Tobin faced a rookie Progressive Conservative leader in Ed Byrne, while Jack Harris of the New Democrats would mount his third campaign as leader. Tobin waged a relentless, whirlwind campaign that was considered a foregone conclusion.
The pre-campaign polls were good for Tobin and the economy of Newfoundland and Labrador was humming along as the province topped the nation in economic growth. Oil revenues were flowing and the fisheries had a good year. Unemployment was still more than twice the national average at around 18%, but things were looking comparatively good in Newfoundland and Labrador.
So, Tobin won his expected victory, though the opportunistic call might have cost him a little. His Liberals captured 50% of the vote, down five points since 1996, and won 32 seats, five fewer than the last time.
The PCs picked up two percentage points, capturing 41% of the vote, while the NDP was up four points to 8%. But it was the PCs who gained the most in seats, up five to the NDP’s one, with PC gains coming in central Newfoundland and on the Avalon Peninsula.
Though the PCs were making progress, Byrne would eventually step aside and be replaced by businessman Danny Williams, who was acclaimed as leader and would be swept to power in 2003, after Tobin had taken his leave.
Like his win in 1999, a jump back into federal politics was widely expected for Tobin — it was actually seen as one of the reasons he decided to call an early election. Tobin was viewed as a potential replacement for Jean Chrétien as federal Liberal leader and thus prime minister, at least among those who wanted an alternative to Paul Martin.
Accordingly, Tobin cut his second term short and ran for federal office when Chrétien called an election in 2000. But, perhaps seeing Martin as unbeatable, Tobin eventually threw in the towel for good in 2002. Speculation would rise again when a new leadership race was called in 2006 to replace Martin, but Tobin would stay on the sidelines, never ascending to the higher office he was always thought to covet.
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