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ANALYSIS: Stakes are high in Windsor Lake byelection

Windsor Lake byelection candidates (from left) Ches Crosbie, Kerri Claire Neil and Paul Antle at the debate Friday.
Windsor Lake byelection candidates (from left) Ches Crosbie, Kerri Claire Neil and Paul Antle at the debate Friday. - Joe Gibbons

Each candidate has their flaws, each party has everything to win and lose on Sept. 20

At Friday’s final debate of the Windsor Lake byelection campaign, hosted by the St. John’s Board of Trade and moderated by The Telegram, NDP candidate Kerri Claire Neil tried her hand at political nicknames. For Liberal Paul Antle: The Tall Tax Evader; for Progressive Conservative Leader Ches Crosbie: The Dull Dynasty; and for herself: The Nervous Newcomer.

Whether you agree with the titles or not, Neil does a good job of outlining the caricature of each candidate.

For Antle, whose business empire extends from the St. John’s Dockyard to China, the reference to tax questions stems from a federal court case from 2010 that ruled a trust set up by Antle’s wife in Barbados shielded upwards of $1 million from capital gains taxes. At the time, Antle maintained he paid taxes owed in full before tax rules changed in 1999, but he claimed the rules changes were unfair. Ultimately, Antle lost an appeal of the rule changes, but he maintains he did nothing wrong on the tax question.

For Ches Crosbie, it goes without saying the Crosbie family – whether in politics or in business – has had a hand in Newfoundland and Labrador’s history for over 100 years. And yes, his delivery can cause more yawns than ovations. Crosbie’s consistent hammering away at Premier Dwight Ball’s Liberal party over high taxes – without owning his own party’s previous role in sanctioning the Muskrat Falls project, which contributed to increased taxation – can also fail to inspire confidence that Crosbie is indeed the no BS candidate.

Neil is the only candidate who can truly claim to be a newcomer to the political sphere. She may be nervous, but she doesn’t lack nerve by disagreeing with the St. John’s Board of Trade at their own event on public spending. She states public spending does not need large cuts to help the provincial economy, despite per capita spending in Newfoundland and Labrador ranking among the highest in the country in just about every category among the provinces, according to Statistics Canada.

The ultimate question of the Windsor Lake election campaign – and potentially of the 2019 general election – will come down to public trust in government. With a public inquiry called to investigate the $12.7-billion Muskrat Falls project getting underway next week and financial mismanagement and fraud most recently uncovered by the auditor general at the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District, public trust in government has taken a hit recently.

Ironically, the strategies explained by each candidate on how they would work to restore public trust show precisely why it’s so easy to be cynical about the political leadership of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Crosbie had a simple answer: “Change the government.”

Well, Newfoundlanders tried that in 2015. The Tory legacy that Crosbie has worked to keep at arms-length is still fresh in the public mind, especially with four former Tory ministers set to take the stand at the Muskrat Falls Inquiry before the end of the year.

Crosbie’s campaign so far has been about gesturing vaguely at health care spending, high taxation and a lack of public trust in the premier as what voters care about most. While Premier Dwight Ball has had his share of public drama (Ed Martin’s severance payment, the ongoing harassment investigations involving former cabinet minisers), it should give Crosbie pause that his constant rhetoric about how sick the public is of the Liberals is contradicted by the fact he’s so far tied with a Liberal candidate who has lost three elections already.

Meanwhile, Antle thinks everything is going just fine under Liberal rule.

Antle has tied himself to the hip of Ball, nodding along with an arguably dubious claim that neither ratepayers or taxpayers will pay for the Muskrat Falls project, citing that the matter is “official government policy,” and therefore dealt with.

When asked what he would do to restore public trust in government, Antle asked Crosbie to apologize on behalf of the Tories to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador for making the bed the Liberals had to lay in.

By offering no plan of his own and instead pointing the finger across the aisle, Antle pretty much summed up why there’s reason to question the direction of the government he’s so eager to join.

Neil staked her credibility on her and her party’s record of opposing Muskrat Falls from the beginning. She treated the debate as a debate, taking time to slap the wrists of her opponents, while bringing up policy such as affordable child care.

Her stance on rebuilding public trust stems from the eternal mantra of the New Democrats: Liberal, Tory, same old story (though she didn’t utter those exact words on Friday).

Like Crosbie, Neil’s repeated barbs on public disdain for her opponents is betrayed by 22 per cent support in the most recent MQO poll, good for a 15-point gap between her campaign and second place, with only five days left to election day.

Ultimately, Neil is let down by her party. The fact the NDP was 21 days behind the Tories in setting their party’s candidate for Windsor Lake plays into the narrative that has dogged the party for years: a lack of organization in campaigns that calls into question their readiness to form and hold onto government.

The Windsor Lake byelection, to date, has been a rocky road. Grand statements, questionable promises and difficulty organizing has placed roadblocks before each candidate in a byelection where the stakes could not be higher.

If Crosbie wins, the Liberals sweat for 14 months.

If Antle wins, the Tories go back to the drawing board, looking for a leader.

If Neil wins, 2019 becomes a three-party race.

With so much to gain and so much to lose, it’s incumbent on the voters of Windsor Lake to sit up, listen hard and – most importantly – cast their ballot on Sept. 20.

david.maher@thetelegram.com

Twitter: DavidMaherNL

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