Newfoundland and Labrador’s house of assembly opened on shaky foundations Thursday, with Lt.-Gov. Judy Foote delivering a throne speech less than three weeks after an election that faces several court challenges.
Though the speech was meant to inspire, there was no escaping the grim financial outlook facing Liberal Premier Andrew Furey and the unease around the election that returned him to power.
“The road before us starts with fully coming to terms with the extensive economic crisis facing this province,” said the speech read by Foote. A few lines later, the government pledged a complete review of the province’s Elections Act.
The legislature’s opening came after a protracted 10-week election that was upended in mid-February by a COVID-19 outbreak in the St. John’s area. With the province in lockdown, chief electoral officer Bruce Chaulk cancelled in-person voting and instead held the election by mail.
Furey’s Liberals were re-elected March 27 with a slim majority, winning 22 of the province’s 40 seats. The Progressive Conservatives won 13 seats, down from 15, and the NDP was reduced to two seats from three. Three Independents were also elected. Voter turnout was 48 per cent, marking a historic low for the province.
One of those Independents, Paul Lane, announced he’d be putting forward a motion on Monday to request an independent investigation into the election. “There are so many very serious allegations,” Lane told reporters. “We need to confirm what is fact, what is fiction. Were there breaches of the Elections Act?”
When asked whether he felt the troubled election left Furey with a legitimate mandate, Lane said that was a decision best left for the courts.
NDP Leader Alison Coffin said she’d happily support Lane’s motion. She and her party launched a constitutional challenge of the election on Monday, asking that the results be thrown out and a new vote be held. Her suit claims Chaulk failed to run a fair, impartial vote and that the election violated charter rights. Her application lists 28 specific irregularities, including an allegation that Chaulk encouraged his staff to include people on the voters list without verifying their identity.
Coffin has also requested a judicial recount in her St. John’s East-Quidi Vidi district, where she lost her seat to Liberal John Hogan by 53 votes.
Two unsuccessful Progressive Conservative candidates are also challenging the results in their ridings.
Sheila Fitzgerald lost the race in St. Barbe-L’Anse aux Meadows to Liberal Krista Lynn Howell by 216 votes. According to court documents viewed by The Canadian Press, Fitzgerald signed an application Monday to have the results in her district tossed out.
The application alleges that Chaulk misled Furey when he told the premier it was safe to hold an election and that he failed to let Furey know changes to the Elections Act were needed. Fitzgerald did not respond to a request for comment.
Jim Lester said he also filed his legal paperwork on Monday claiming that some voters in his riding never received ballots and others were added to voting lists without proper verification. He had held the Mount Pearl North seat but lost to Liberal Lucy Stoyles by 109 votes.
The Progressive Conservatives have said they will not be challenging the election in court as a party. When asked Thursday if he felt Furey had a legitimate mandate, interim party leader David Brazil said that “will be determined by the courts.”
Furey and the Liberals have shied away from commenting on the election, pledging instead to revisit the Elections Act.
As for the financial sinkhole ahead of him, Furey said his first goal is to find a solution for the cash-sucking Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project. The massive dam and generating station in Labrador has run over schedule and over budget, essentially doubling in cost to $13.1 billion.
Without outside assistance – ideally from Ottawa – power rates across the province could also double in order to pay for it. “And that effects the economy,” Furey told reporters. “Muskrat Falls is an incredible anchor around our souls and our finances.”
Furey said the province’s next budget, which should be tabled in June, will be another “COVID-19-style budget,” aimed at maintaining stability as the province navigates the global pandemic. “This is not time for austerity,” he said.
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