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ANALYSIS: Aggression, nerves on display in televised Newfoundland and Labrador leaders' debate

From left, Liberal Leader Dwight Ball, NDP Leader Alison Coffin and Progressive Conservative Leader Ches Crosbie at Wednesday’ night’s televised debate.
From left, Liberal Leader Dwight Ball, NDP Leader Alison Coffin and Progressive Conservative Leader Ches Crosbie at Wednesday’ night’s televised debate. - David Maher

With huge problems facing the province, leaders fight amongst themselves

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

We saw some nervous leaders Wednesday during the first televised leaders debate of the 2019 Newfoundland and Labrador general election.

And there’s good reason for that.

Liberal Leader Dwight Ball has reason to be confident. Incumbency is always important in an election, but the Liberals also got to set their own stage for the election campaign.

But the pre-election polls painted a picture of a close decided vote between the Liberals and the Tories, and a huge number of undecided voters (the high-water mark was an MQO poll in March that claimed 52 per cent) that showed consistently in polls for the months before the election means this election could be anybody’s game – as long as you’re a Liberal or a Tory.


Miss the debate? Replay it here.


Of everyone who lives in this province, the three people most aware of pre-election polling data are Ball, Progressive Conservative Leader Ches Crosbie and New Democratic Party Leader Alison Coffin.

Ball got aggressive in this debate. He challenged Crosbie again and again with simple questions he knew were hard for Crosbie to answer. Ball took aim at early calls from Crosbie to look to health care for cuts, for one. Crosbie denied the charge, sure, but proposing an N.L. Quality Health Council to oversee health care spending while also claiming health care cuts are totally off the table is at best forgetful and at worst disingenuous.

Ball knew he had an opening on Crosbie on health care, and he took it right out of the gate.

But I’m not sure if the aggression from Ball was confidence or nerves. The debates between Ball and Crosbie were heated, but they were also personal. Both leaders claimed the other was dishonest. Both leaders claimed they were telling the truth. I’m not sure if anyone watching at home was convinced of either point.

There are murmurs from Liberal insiders that they’re concerned — maybe not about losing the election outright, but that the showing may be worse than they anticipated.

Crosbie didn’t demonstrate the fight he says is so important in a premier.

He let Ball and Coffin speak over him. He avoided questions from his opponents and he did not match the energy of the room.

But Crosbie is right to speak of health care expenses as an “uncomfortable truth” in this province (shout out to CBC’s Ariana Kellend for a fantastic question). Of all the money spent by the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, almost 40 per cent goes to health care. You can call it “finding efficiencies” or “making cuts” or any other euphemism you want, but one way or another health care expenses have to go down – or at least not skyrocket as they could when more than half the province is over 65 years old in 2042, according to the federal parliamentary budget office in 2018.

Crosbie has reason to expect a better performance for his party than in 2015. But I’m not sure how high a bar that is to clear.

The elephant in the room was who was not in the room

Coffin had the most to gain from this debate. She’s been on the ballot before, but she’s still a new face.

She did take the time to introduce herself and offer a biography to the people. (I didn’t know she was from Joe Batt’s Arm!)

A slate of 14 candidates is weak, by any definition, for a party that’s been around for as long as it has. Should Coffin be blamed for that? Probably not. But the leadership of the New Democratic Party has undoubtedly hurt their position in this election. Ball has a point when he says parties have to be prepared for an election. I’d like to think a competent government can put together a half-decent election campaign.

But Coffin is also right when she called out the premier on the early election date. Not every candidate can drop what they’re doing and hit the campaign trail. A legislative amendment could have easily allowed for an early election while giving notice to the entire province what was coming.

While Coffin had some strong moments, a debate style consisting of rapid-fire questions to her opponent without pausing to actually let them address the question came across as badgering. I’m not convinced it worked in her favour.

The elephant in the room was who was not in the room. Precedent dictates that only parties sitting in the House of Assembly get their spot in the televised debate.

But, speaking only for myself, I think it was a bad move to leave the Newfoundland and Labrador Alliance out of the debate, especially when democracy itself is an election issue right now. But, that said, a test to pass for debate participation is important, and I understand why the decision was made.

Ultimately, the people of Newfoundland and Labrador have the most reason to be nervous as we approach May 16.

Muskrat Falls is almost done. Outmigration continues. Debt continues to rise. We’re getting older faster than any other province. The climate change is very, very real and our small province is in the crosshairs.

We have big problems to overcome and we have to work together to overcome them.

Bickering amongst ourselves is not going to solve our problems.

On May 16, it’s up to every Newfoundlander and Labradorian to sit up straight, listen closely, ask questions and cast our vote.

david.maher@thetelegram.com

Twitter: DavidMaherNL


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