Party leaders spar over how to handle N.L. looming 'bankruptcy' at leaders debate

·3 min read

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — The dismal financial outlook in Newfoundland and Labrador was centre stage in an election debate Wednesday night, with party leaders sparring over what to do about the province's massive debt and spending problems.

Liberal Leader and incumbent Premier Andrew Furey defended himself against attacks from Progressive Conservative Leader Ches Crosbie, who said Furey didn't know how to get the province out of its fiscal hole. Furey also had to fend off accusations from NDP Leader Alison Coffin, who said he wasn't willing to make the right investments to help struggling voters escape poverty.

Furey said "no single budget" is going to fix Newfoundland and Labrador's financial mess. The Atlantic province of about 520,000 people is on the brink of insolvency, with a net debt of $16.4 billion. He didn't give specific details on how he would pull the province out of debt, but said "mass layoffs aren't the answer."

"We didn't get into these fiscal issue because of the hard work of nurses," the premier said. Furey added that the province can't get back to financial health until it fixes the "boondoggle" of Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project. The project was sanctioned in 2012 under a previous Tory government at a cost of $7.4 billion, but its price tag was $13.1 billion as of September.

"Well I'm glad to hear we won't be cutting," Coffin told Furey. But, she added, the province should be spending more on public sector employees like nurses and paramedics. She also called for a $15 minimum wage and dismissed Furey's suggestion that doing so would make the province uncompetitive.

"We don't want to be known as the place where you can come and get cheap labour," Coffin said.

Crosbie, meanwhile, said he wanted to go over the province's expenditures line by line to cut waste. "But that's only half of what is required," he said, adding that the province needs to increase economic growth.

The Tory leader also defended his use of the term "bankrupt" on the campaign trail to describe the province's finances. "I'm a straight shooter," he said. "And that's why I use words like bankrupt, because it cuts to the heart of the matter."

Furey said he didn't agree: "We're not bankrupt of ideas," the premier said.

With just 10 days left before the Feb. 13 vote, only one party — the NDP — had released a platform by Wednesday night. The Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives have said they’d release their platforms this week, though neither provided an exact date.

And though the election was called less than a year after former Liberal premier Dwight Ball wrote a letter to Ottawa saying his government could no longer afford to provide public services, Furey’s campaign has been defined by low-stakes announcements about community gardens and programs to unite youth and seniors.

Some economists and political scientists have shaken their heads over what they say is an absence of real discussion about the province’s looming financial crisis.

With the highest net debt-to-GDP ratio in the country, debt servicing costs make up the second-largest expense in the provincial budget, just after health care. Experts say with no sign of resuscitation in the local offshore oil industry, those costs will only get worse if drastic measures aren’t taken.

Heading into the election, the Liberals held 19 of the legislature's 40 seats, the Progressive Conservatives held 15 seats, the NDP had three and there were three Independents.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 3, 2021.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press