ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — A doctor from a political family will take office for the first time as Newfoundland and Labrador premier, stepping into the job as the financially troubled province reels from the impacts of the pandemic and falling oil prices.
Andrew Furey was announced the winner of the provincial Liberal party leadership on Monday night. The 45-year-old surgeon and charity founder beat out John Abbott in the contest to replace Premier Dwight Ball.
In his victory speech, Furey called on the province’s residents to stand together through the difficult times ahead.
“Your passion and strength are needed now more than ever before in our history,” he said.
The son of Senate Speaker George Furey said overcoming the province’s economic crisis is not a short-term proposition, and he warned of unspecified ”tough decisions” that will have to be made.
“Make no mistake, the path will not be easy, but I can say that things will be done differently,” Furey said. “The status quo no longer works, and quite frankly we can’t afford it any more. We must get away from that well-worn path of boom and bust and back again.”
The celebration at the St. John’s Convention Centre was subdued. Just 50 people were allowed at the convention because of COVID-19 health restrictions, including party officials, media and other staff.
Each candidate was allowed to bring five guests, and Ball made remarks from an event at Deer Lake on the island’s west coast, broadcast to the large, sparsely occupied convention hall over video.
The two candidates, both political novices, sat with their families in the large room where about a dozen people were seated. They exchanged an elbow bump before Furey gave remarks, commenting on the unusual situation of celebrating in a nearly empty room.
After his speech, Furey addressed the stark fiscal situation he’s set to inherit as Newfoundland and Labrador’s 14th premier. The province reported a $2.1-billion deficit in a fiscal update last month, an increase of $1.35 billion since last year’s budget.
Furey called the figure “overwhelming,” but he pointed to tough economic times in the province’s past and to jurisdictions around the world that are spending heavily to deal with the pandemic.
“Frankly, on the back-of-napkin math, I thought it would be a bit more,” he said of the deficit figure. “Everyone at home should rest assured that this is a top priority for me.”
On top of finalizing the provincial budget, Furey will also have to contend with electricity rates that are expected to rise due to cost overruns from the over-budget Muskrat Falls dam and an offshore oil and gas industry struggling to attract exploration activity.
Furey said another priority will be negotiating with Ottawa about financial support for the province.
Ball announced his resignation in February, but the race to name his replacement was paused in March as the pandemic set in and the province declared a public health state of emergency.
The election resumed in June, after the province lifted some restrictions on gatherings. Once Furey is sworn in, a provincial election will be required within a year.
During the leadership campaign, Furey said he did not plan to call a general election before the end of 2020, and on Monday he said he plans to take “the first seat available.”
The Progressive Conservatives, meanwhile, have opened candidate nominations and will hold a general meeting in October in apparent preparation.
Ball, who was re-elected with a minority government in 2019, has said he will stay on as the representative for his Humber-Gros Morne district until the next election.
He thanked his colleagues, staff and the public in a speech from Deer Lake. The party also played recorded video tributes for Ball from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and the premiers of Quebec, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia.
Party officials said more than 21,000 Liberal members and supporters cast ballots in a vote conducted online and by telephone. Under the point system used by the party according to districts won, Furey nearly doubled Abbott’s score.
Before the result was even announced, though, Abbott issued a statement calling for an independent audit of the voting process, saying it had been seriously flawed.
Abbott congratulated his rival, who began the campaign with the backing of the Liberal caucus and said he’s not contesting the result.
But he said his campaign had come across a number of issues with the voting system, including some voters who did not receive a PIN to cast a ballot and others who had inactive phone numbers.
He said he estimates hundreds or thousands voters may have been affected, and he said the audit should take place to ensure the system works.
“Certainly, when you’re electing the premier of the province, you’ve got to have a process that is squeaky clean,” Abbott said.
Trudeau issued a statement Monday night congratulating Furey for his win.
“I look forward to working closely with Dr. Furey to keep our communities safe and healthy as we safely restart the economy over the coming months,” he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 3, 2020.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press