By ROSALYN ROY
PORT AUX BASQUES – Now that Andrew Parsons has reclaimed his seat as MHA for the riding of Burgeo-La Poile, he’s mostly just trying to get back into the swing of things.
“I’m just trying to get caught up,” he says via phone interview, a day or two after the election results were announced.
The Newfoundland and Labrador Liberal Party claimed a slim majority, winning 22 seats in the House of Assembly after a prolonged, 10 week election. Parsons first won his seat in 2011 and has served as its MHA ever since, as well as handling several high-profile portfolios under various Liberal leaders. He was re-elected by a significant margin, earning 1992 votes to his nearest competitor, PC candidate Ethan Wheeler-Park’s 235 votes. NDP candidate Judy Vanta earned 60 votes.
Parsons does not yet know if he will retain the portfolio as the Minister for Industry, Energy and Technology (IET) while also serving as the province’s Attorney General, but says he is happy to serve in whatever role Premier Andrew Furey would like.
“There’s normal, and then there’s this. Normally after an election, it’s still about a two-week process before members are officially elected. That’s statutory,” explains Parsons. “So generally, sometime within the next two weeks, you will see the House open for Members to be sworn in, and for a speaker to be elected, and at some point prior to that you usually have the cabinet appointed by the Premier.”
Parsons says that he’s not aware of the specific timelines for that process and whether or not they will be altered given the pandemic, but he does expect he will have to return to St. John’s sooner rather than later as the government resumes. In addition to re-opening the House, he anticipates the government will move quickly to pass an interim supply bill.
“That’s the bill that goes into the House that ensures the bills are paid until the budget is passed.”
How long it will be before the Liberals will announce a budget is not a question Parsons can answer, but he says at least the interim supply bill will ensure that civil servants, for example, continue to get paid. He concedes that it’s been a different kind of election this time around.
“There was nothing normal about it, prior to February 13 or after, everything about it was different,” says Parsons. “Every part of it was different, including the meetings and the strategy and the campaigning.”
He credits his seasoned teams for their ability to adapt and evolve during an unusual campaign.
“Overall, obviously, I’m extremely happy with the results. I got a strong showing of support here in the district, which pleases me to no end, and it just lets you know your hard work is paying off.”
While Parsons may be secure in his riding, the election process itself has come under heavy fire from party leaders, the general public, media and political scientists. Although Parsons comes from a legal background, he has no experience with election laws, though unofficially at least he says that he has spoken with some friends and colleagues who do have that background about a challenge to overturn the Liberal victory.
“Right now it’s just extremely hard to tell,” says Parsons. “I think it comes down to each race. Will you see something that takes the election in its entirety? I don’t think that will happen, but if you look at some of the districts maybe there will be some action brought, but it’s hard to tell.”
Until he returns to the House, Parsons is more focused on ongoing matters within his own riding. He’s already resumed holding virtual meetings and teleconferences with community and industry leaders.
“There’s a lot of stuff in my district and my former department – it remains to be seen where I go – but what was going on in the department does have an effect here. I was just on the phone again with Matador Mining,” shares Parsons. “That could have a huge, positive impact on our district.”
Matador has already resumed work on its Cape Ray gold shield. In addition to more jobs, the company’s presence also helps boost tourism operators who offer temporary accommodation rentals and food services. Tourism has taken a particularly hard hit thanks to COVID-19 lockdowns, and Parsons says he is keen to help out local operators.
“We are very contingent on a strong tourism season here,” notes Parsons.
Naturally any talk of tourism must include Marine Atlantic, the Crown corporation that serves as the region’s largest employer.
“There’s a lot of interesting things going to be happening there,” offers Parsons. “Even though it’s not provincial, I obviously think we all have a vested interest in it and I plan on following up on a number of different issues there, whether it’s the ferry, whether it’s COVID restrictions, whether it’s cost recovery, whether it’s headquarters, you name it.”
Ideally Parsons would like to see Marine Atlantic relocate its headquarters to the Port aux Basques area. The ferry service is currently headquartered in St. John’s, and was once based in New Brunswick. A sign across the street from the Bruce II Sports Centre in Port aux Basques denotes where Marine Atlantic had planned to build a new facility that would consolidate its regional operations under one roof, but so far no construction has begun.
“Every time I drive by that stadium and see that sign up there,” Parsons pauses before continuing, “put it this way – the irritation never goes away. So there’s no doubt that that is something that needs to happen.”
Parsons says that like everyone else, he just wants the best Marine Atlantic possible.
“We depend so much on it,” he says. “I also don’t think it’s Marine Atlantic per se. A lot of what they do is driven by the Federal government, so there’ll be lots of questions asked to the Federal government on the decision-making process.”
Parsons also plans to speak to the Federal Minister of Transport, Omar Alghabra, about cost recovery.
“I think it concerns me in both of my roles. I think it concerns me as an MHA and I think it concerns my role as it relates to industry.”
Discussion around cost recovery has started to get more attention in Ottawa after MP Jack Harris protested against recent ferry increases, with some calling for the provincial government to challenge the practice in court as a violation of the Terms of Confederation.
“That’s been an age old conversation. It’s not one that I have looked at recently,” admits Parsons. “We all know that there’s the Terms of Union, and then there’s the interpretation of it.”
Parsons would rather try to find a solution through co-operation between both levels of government, noting that Alghabra is new to the portfolio. Nevertheless, he concedes that so far advocacy and diplomacy has failed to resolve the matter of cost recovery, despite federal campaign promises to do just that.
“There is absolutely an argument to be made, but whether that argument would be successful in court is a whole different question, because I will say that the Terms as written, there’s a vagueness to them.”
For now cost recovery seems to be on the lower scale of pressing concerns. Parsons points out that the two levels of government still have to deal with a number of other matters, including rate mitigation, oil and gas and healthcare. Keeping cost recovery nearer the forefront will take more time and effort.
“This is one that I don’t think generates a lot of attention in Ottawa, which is why we need to ensure that we do our part to ensure that the Department is quite aware.”
He may not currently helm the IET portfolio, but Parsons remains committed to developing future economic opportunities for the province and most especially his riding. One of those includes the cold and live storage feasibility study for Port aux Basques.
“There should be something coming back on that within the next 30 days,” shares Parsons. “My understanding is that it’s in the conclusion (of the) timeline now, where if it’s not done it’s about to be done.”
Aside from economic development, Parsons says the biggest part of his job remains day-to-day issues. That can mean long hours for Parsons and long-time assistant Joanne Clarke, helping residents navigate provincial departments, whether it’s wading through red tape or just getting answers.
“That’s what we do. That’s the biggest driver of our job. I also think it’s the biggest driver of why we’ve been successful, is that we really put our heart and soul into trying to help people.”
Parsons also plans to deal with funding issues and infrastructure in the region. Although his plate may be full, he says he’s just truly happy to have the opportunity return to the House and deal with all of them.
“There’s still a lot of conversations to be had.”