Health care, affordability priorities for 1st House of Assembly session at Colonial Building in 63 years

From left, PC Opposition House leader Barry Petten, government House leader Steve Crocker and interim NDP Leader Jim Dinn said the cost of living and health care are priorities heading into the fall session of the House of Assembly. (Curtis Hicks/CBC - image credit)
From left, PC Opposition House leader Barry Petten, government House leader Steve Crocker and interim NDP Leader Jim Dinn said the cost of living and health care are priorities heading into the fall session of the House of Assembly. (Curtis Hicks/CBC - image credit)
Curtis Hicks/CBC
Curtis Hicks/CBC

As Newfoundland and Labrador grapples with the rising cost of living, health-care staff shortages and the aftermath of post-tropical storm Fiona, the House of Assembly is — temporarily — back in its former home.

For the first two days of the 51st session, members will sit at the Colonial Building in St. John's, the location of Newfoundland's legislature from 1850 to 1959.

On Monday, MHAs from all three parties said health care and the cost of living will be top of the agenda for the upcoming session.

Those two topics dominated the last session's question periods. Numbers released by the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association revealed 125,000 people in the province don't have a family physician, and Russia's invasion of Ukraine, among other factors, caused fuel prices to skyrocket.

Steve Crocker, government house leader, also pointed to Premier Andrew Furey's promise in August that pay equity legislation will finally be tabled this fall.

"We'll see a lot of legislation this fall that makes some substantial changes," he said. "Like any session, there'll be some housekeeping legislation as well."

Last spring, the opposition and activists criticized the provincial government for failing to move forward with pay equity legislation, about five years after committing to implementing it. Newfoundland and Labrador is one of four provinces and territories without pay equity legislation.

In August, Furey promised action on pay equity during the coming fall session.

The provincial government is also dealing with the aftermath of post-tropical storm Fiona, which destroyed dozens of homes and displaced hundreds of people just over a week ago. The provincial government has announced a $30-million relief package, most of which is going directly to communities and households affected by the storm.

'We're reaching a crisis'

Barry Petten, the Progressive Conservative opposition house leader, said his party's priorities haven't changed much, either.

"Flick on the radio, turn on the TV, go in a coffee shop: health-care issues and the cost of living are probably the two main issues dominating," he said.

The province's health-care system has struggled with staffing for years, but this summer was marked by more frequent temporary emergency room closures in the Central Health and Eastern Health regions.

Last week, Health Minister Tom Osborne said a temporary increase in compensation reduced emergency room closures in some areas in August and September, and the province would be announcing more physician recruitment measures soon.

Sarah Smellie/The Canadian Press
Sarah Smellie/The Canadian Press

Meanwhile, the price of gas decreased over the summer after reaching a record high last spring, but low-wage workers in Newfoundland and Labrador are still struggling with the rising prices of food and housing.

Interim NDP Leader Jim Dinn said housing will also be among his priorities this fall.

"I think we're reaching a crisis. My fear is that we're going to see more and more people sleeping on the streets and in parks … this winter," he said.

Dinn wants the provincial and federal governments to create a long-term plan to increase housing.

Back to the Colonial Building

Wednesday will mark the first time the House of Assembly has sat at the Colonial Building for more than six decades.

The provincial government spent about $15 million and 11 years renovating the Colonial Building, which reopened in September and now houses a museum and hosts guided tours.

When the refurbishment began in 2011, Crocker said, the building was intended to be a functioning facility as well as a historic site.

"I think it's important that we highlight to people our history and where our government started," he said.

Dinn criticized the amount of money spent on the refurbishment which, including $8 million from the federal government, totals $23 million.

"We've got people who are in emergency shelters, who are facing homelessness, who can't afford to put food on the table. I think we've got to get our priorities straight here," he said.

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