Leadership and Legitimacy

Leadership failure and an illegitimate election are not what the province needs right now

Leadership and a stable government.

That’s what Andrew Furey said this election was about.

He repeated the same message when he suddenly started to attend briefings about COVID last week.

By the end of the week, Newfoundland and Labrador had neither.

We are having an election in Newfoundland and Labrador in the middle of winter in the middle of a pandemic because Andrew Furey wanted to get it out of the way.

It is that simple.

There was no pressing need for an election. The opposition parties didn’t want one.  The Liberals have been able to get any part of their agenda through the House without hinderance since 2019.  The opposition has been so pliable they voted in favour of not one but two unconstitutional laws last year. One of them allowed the health minister – already infamous for touting rumours as truth – and his justice colleague to toss people in jail like some Third World junta would do.

The Liberals haven’t wanted to do anything significant to address the province’s problems since 2017 – and still don’t – so it’s not like they were in danger of rousing the opposition and the public any time soon.

As for the dubious Danny Williams law about a new Premier and an election, Andrew Furey could have changed the law, with opposition support, just like in 2015.

If Furey wanted to act on Moya Greene’s report – something he abandoned during the election, anyway– the Liberals could have let the House debate it.  If the Opposition balked, Furey could have used an election as a referendum on the future of the province.

But that isn’t what happened.

Andrew Furey and his Brain Trust wanted an election because they figured they could pop one out now and get away with it.

They did not ask the Chief Medical Officer her opinion, as Furey admitted last week. They apparently didn’t check that the elections office had a workable plan in the event of an outbreak. The failed to do due diligence.

So, no. 

Not a mandate election. 

Not a referendum.

Furey called an election because it fit his agenda.

That’s all.

That’s not the problem here. 

It’s not a reason to blame him for merely trying to put a tick in the box. Calling an election to win a majority is what ambitious people do. Dozens of people in his position have done it before.

So no. 

Do not fault him for being an ambitious man.

The problem for Andrew Furey is that leaders take responsibility for their decisions.

No excuses.

Yet, when confronted with the consequences of his decision last week, Andrew Furey did anything but take responsibility for his decision.

*That* is the problem.

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Day after day after day last week, Furey pointed at everything – the unchangeable House of Assembly Act he could have changed, the vagaries of pandemic forecasting – and anyone – chief elections officer Bruce Chaulk, chief medical officer Janice Fitzgerald – rather than accept responsibility for his decision.

When it was clear that neither Fitzgerald nor Chaulk could figure out what to do about the outbreak and the election, Furey fell back on patent nonsense to avoid acting.  Not appropriate to interfere, Furey said.  He called the election but now he was a candidate in it. Nothing he could do.

If he was just a candidate, then Andrew Furey had no business at a government briefing.  And if he was Premier, then Furey had no business dressed like Justin Trudeau circa 2015, reciting campaign lines about the need for stable government.  

Either way, he had no business sitting there like a Minder next to the chief medical officer, who grew physically uncomfortable whenever questions came up about the safety of having an election during a massive COVID outbreak.  When reporters asked him about the election timing, Furey’s answers were always as self-serving and as wrong as his campaigning alongside Fitzgerald, at public expense.

The truth is that Furey wears two hats during the election.  He is Premier and candidate. Furey ought not to make major decisions about government during the campaign. There’s a long-standing convention in Westminster-style parliaments about that. 

In an emergency, though, the incumbent Premier’s obligations change.  The care-taker convention, as it is called, allows for that. The Premier and his cabinet colleagues have a duty to ensure government officials respond correctly especially when issues of publicly safety are involved.  If the officials cannot sort things out, then the cabinet – above all, the Premier – have a duty to fix things.

Once it became clear last week – arguably by Tuesday, without doubt on Wednesday – that Chaulk and Fitzgerald could not sort themselves out, Furey had a duty to act himself or direct the Clerk of the Executive Council and his Chief of Staff to sort out the mess. Public safety was plainly involved.  

By Wednesday, the trajectory of the outbreak was clear enough to halt the planned vote on Saturday.  Had the Premier delayed the vote, something that was well within his authority as Premier, he would have done so with the support of the other parties in the election and a majority of voters. 

No one could have credibly accused him of acting improperly.  After all, delaying the entire vote until it was safe for the majority to vote in person would affect all campaigns equally.  Liberals would get no advantage from it. Nor would a delay hurt the chances Furey would win as big as people expected.  No one’s health would be at risk, to boot.

Furey didn’t do that.  He let the CEO and CMO stumble around pointing at each other.  He sat there.  When questioned, Furey pointed as well.  Had Bruce Chaulk been in the room, too, the COVID briefings would have looked like a convention of convulsing octopuses there was so much finger-pointing, dissembling, and buck-passing among the three of them.  

Furey dithered until finally, on Friday night, no one could dither any longer. Too many poll clerks had refused to work in the 22 districts scheduled to vote on Saturday.  And test results showed we were facing a more virulent strain of the coronavirus. Fitzgerald slid all the levers on her protection control box to the right, suddenly discovering the power to do what she said earlier in the week she could not do.

Meanwhile, at the same moment that Furey and Fitzgerald were live making Fitzgerald’s announcement, Chaulk was live on CTV national news.  He’d cancelled voting day and pushed back the date for special ballots – now the only form of balloting left – for two weeks.  Voters would have until Monday to get their requests to his office for a mail-in ballot.

The interviewer asked Chaulk if he’d told people in Newfoundland and Labrador this news.  Not the party leaders, yet, said Chaulk.  And his people were preparing - present tense - a news release, presumably to be issued later. Chaulk giggled, according to some people on social media, where a clip of the interview made the rounds.

As fundamentally wrong as Chaulk’s interview was, it is important as a symptom of the bigger problem last week, namely the failure of the provincial government’s leadership – political and bureaucratic – to deal with a provincial emergency in a unified, coherent way.  That was the peak of Furey’s failure as a leader last week.   

On Sunday, Bruce Chaulk moved the deadlines on his latest scheme, but it still requires 140,000 people to ask for and get ballots and send them back in by the first week of March.  Odds are still high, then, that we won’t see the number of ballots cast in this election we normally would. Add to that all the people - the illiterate, the folks without adequate telephone or computer service, and so on - disenfranchised by Chaulk’s schemes.

Things are so bad that legal challenges to the election result are a given. They will take months to resolve.  And in the meantime, whatever government wins the election will be dogged by a cloud of illegitimacy that now attaches to this election.

People may not know precisely what is wrong.  They will just know something is not right. That is enough.  They will question the election result.  We are not talking here about being upset that your candidate or your party did not win.  We are talking about a fundamental distrust that the outcome reflects the actual will of voters.  

Andrew Furey and the Liberals say this election is about leadership and a stable government.  Instead we are headed for an unstable government regardless of who wins.  If Furey and the Liberals win, then the public doubts will be large.  If they win an overwhelming majority, then the doubt will be overwhelmingly larger.

Failed leadership and an unstable government.  

It is hard to imagine a worse situation for Newfoundland and Labrador to be in right now.