Newfoundland and Labrador Liberals crown Dwight Ball as new leader

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – The new leader of the Newfoundland and Labrador Liberal party said in a victory speech Sunday that the province’s residents are eager for a change in government.

Dwight Ball, the former interim provincial Liberal leader, won the race in the third ballot with 2,832 points.

“We are ready to govern, and together we will build a brilliant future for Newfoundland and Labrador,” Ball told about 300 cheering supporters in a hotel ballroom in St. John’s.

“I will not let you down.”

Ball said leadership is about listening and working together. He said many residents are ready to get behind the Liberal party ahead of the 2015 provincial election.

“People want democracy restored. They want honesty, accountability, integrity. They want that brought back to government,” said Ball.

Ball said his first step as premier would be to repeal perceived access-to-information restrictions under the Tory government.

“This is the first step in ending the arrogance and restoring accountability,” he said. “Together, we will make things right.”

Just over a week of voting wrapped up at noon Sunday, with 63 per cent of the roughly 38,000 eligible voters casting ballots, the party said.

Ballots were cast using a one-person, one-vote system that allowed voting online and by telephone using personal identification numbers.

Voters were asked to rank candidates by preference.

The weighted process allotted 100 points to each of 48 provincial districts. For example, a candidate who was the top choice of 20 per cent of voters in a district in the first count got 20 points.

A simple majority of 2,401 points wins the leadership.

Ball takes the helm at a time when supporters are more hopeful than they’ve been in years that the next provincial vote in October 2015 will be a major breakthrough.

For the first time since the Progressive Conservatives swept to the first of three consecutive majority wins in 2003, the Liberals are topping recent polls.

But the party has much work to do if it’s to capitalize on those gains. Party debt of about $800,000 is a major issue along with the need to reorganize ground troops and strengthen district associations.

The Tories now hold 35 of 48 seats in the house of assembly. The Opposition Liberals have seven seats and the NDP has three members after two left to sit as Independents after a very public leadership blow up three weeks ago.

There is one vacancy since Premier Kathy Dunderdale lost one of her most senior cabinet members with the resignation of former Finance Minister Jerome Kennedy last month. He stepped down to resume practising law.

A byelection is set for Nov. 26 in the Conception Bay North district of Carbonear-Harbour Grace.

It will be cast as a test of Tory support and whether the Liberals can take advantage of the government’s bleak approval ratings.

An August poll by Halifax-based Corporate Research Associates suggested a satisfaction rating of 31 per cent for Dunderdale’s administration — down from more than 80 per cent under former premier Danny Williams before he quit politics almost three years ago.

The Tory government has been under fire for much of the last year. It has had to defend a cost-cutting spring budget that slashed 1,200 public sector jobs, perceived access-to-information restrictions, and risks linked to the $7.7-billion Muskrat falls hydro project in Labrador.

Opposition critics also pounced after the last budget forecast a deficit of $564 million this fiscal year due to flubbed oil price predictions and less demand as world economies slowed.

Liberal MP Scott Andrews, representing the Avalon riding in Newfoundland, said the political landscape is changing.

“This summer, everywhere I travelled, I could hear the message that people are fed up with Kathy Dunderdale, fed up with her government,” he said in an interview.

Progressive Conservatives will have been in power for 12 years when the next provincial vote is held, Andrews said.

“And in Newfoundland politics, once you hit that 12-year mark, your best-before date has expired. And that’s what I’m hearing everywhere I go, that people want a change.”

If she’s worried, Dunderdale isn’t showing it.

She brushed off any threat of Liberal momentum last week when asked about the leadership race.

“This is their sixth or seventh leadership we’ve been through with the Liberals since 2003,” she said Thursday outside the legislature. “So, no, I can’t say that I’m getting super excited about it or perturbed about it.”

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