Picking a premier: Q&A with Andrew Furey

·10 min read

With the race for the leadership of the Newfoundland and Labrador Liberal Party winding down, both candidates sat down for interviews with The St. John's Morning Show.

Below is John Andrew Furey's take on what lies ahead if he is chosen to be the next leader and in turn inherits the role of premier of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Furey spoke with host Krissy Holmes about N.L.'s $16-billion debt, the province's relationship with Ottawa, and why he thinks he's the leader needed right now.

John Abbott's interview can be found here.

Online voting for Liberal Party of Newfoundland and Labrador members and supporters started Tuesday and runs until Monday at noon NT. The party will announce its new leader Monday.

Krissy Holmes: As this race winds down, we're contending with $16 billion in debt. We're more than $2 billion short this year alone. What do you think is the way through this financial mess?

Andrew Furey: Well, before I tackle that question, Krissy, I'd like to take this opportunity just to pass along my condolences to the Todd McLean family and to the entire community of the great Northern Peninsula for the recent loss. With respect to the deficit and debt, I mean they're overwhelming. I mean, to borrow Premier [Clyde] Wells's words, there is no sense in sugarcoating this. We are in a tough fiscal and financial situation right here, right now. But we can't lose sight of the fact that this is a global economic crisis and we are one of many facing similar levels of debt and deficit.

That means that we need to take this opportunity right now to put it together, strong strategies to deal with the debt and deficit in the short, medium and long term and in the short term, frankly, there is no path forward without a robust, healthy, strong relationship with Ottawa and that's not to say that we're not firm in our negotiations and our back and forth with Ottawa. But it means that we need to work with them to help stabilize the ship to help get Newfoundland and Labrador into a safe port so that we're able to look internally at our own structural deficit so that we can develop medium-term strategies in order to right the ship for the long term.

It's certainly challenging timing — every other province is feeling the pinch right now, too. So, I mean, the argument could be made that this province has had plenty of time to get its act together. I mean, can we really just rely on Ottawa to fix this?

We can spend all kinds of time looking in the rear-view mirror, but like handling a patient that has a medical problem in front of you now, there is no sense looking at bad behaviours. You need to look forward and look at it in terms of solutions. And that's where I'm focused. Of course we could have changed things along the way but again that's water under the bridge. We need to look forward to create solutions and I think the solutions involve Ottawa. I don't believe there is a path forward without Ottawa right here, right now. I think we're very lucky to be part of a strong Canadian federation. And as I've said before, we've contributed financially, we've contributed culturally to this federation and I believe in the concept of a federation and now it's time for the centre to help us in tough times.

What would you be asking for from Ottawa specifically?

I think we need help with looking at stabilizing electricity rates. [Federal Finance] Minister [Bill] Morneau has already given his guarantee until the commission of the [Muskrat Falls] project and given a promise to help negotiate beyond that. I think we need to build on that and hold him to that promise. But I think we need to get creative in looking out so that our debt-servicing costs — and when you look at the Atlantic average compared to the other provinces, we pay more than any other province in Atlantic Canada with respect to debt servicing, and of course that is our second [largest] budget item. So we need to look at ways to potentially unlock the Canadian potential in order to decrease some of those costs.

We've been hearing over and over again that revenue is not our problem, that spending is our problem. And people really want to know before they vote — where would you make up for this shortfall in order to balance those books?

It's a combination of revenue and spending, in my estimation. We need to grow revenues but we need to get spending under control. And I think we have seen that the size of government has exploded over the last 10 to 15 years. And we need to right size that, but we need to do that in a balanced, measured way. Right now we're seeing governments around the world borrowing trillions of dollars to help stimulate the economy, to help stabilize jobs. So I don't think, you know, today in this global economic crisis, it's right to talk about massive cuts but we do need to look at the size of the civil service and balance and responsible way and right that size, over that, over the medium term.

What would that strategy look like?

I think we need to kind of look at program triage, because I believe that no waste can be tolerated. So we need to look at what programs we're delivering to the people of the province and if we're getting a good return on investment, whether that be an economic return or a social return. And we need to have a strong evaluation of those and if programs aren't delivering what they're supposed to be delivering, or doing so in an ineffective and inefficient way then they need to be looked at being eliminated. And I also look at using attrition and of course in early retirement and within the civil service as well.

When we talk about program delivery, the obvious challenge we have is that our population is spread out over a lot of geography and it's getting more costly to supply those services. What potential solutions do you see to potentially solving that issue?

Well, of course, it's a great discussion and it's one that I think we need to bring to Ottawa, as well, because frankly some of the formulas they … use in terms of transfer payments just don't work for our population. And we have one-third the population of the Maritimes and three times the land mass and it's scattered around the province for historical and cultural reasons. And that's, you know, over 500 years of history that's caused that. But we need to look at stabilizing and diversifying the economy in rural areas as well. But we also need to look at the demographic crisis that's facing this province right now. This is a silent one that's been creeping up.

And right now you know 20 to 25 per cent of the population is approaching 65 years of age and leaving the labour market, and that's going to cause a strain on the economic potential with the labour market. So we need to unlock labour potential for it to develop economic opportunities and that involves unlocking potential labour force here right now, including what we've proposed is $25-a-day daycare but also developing a healthy immigration policy that helps correct this demographic crisis that we're currently in. I mean right now we have the oldest population in the country.

We have the highest dependency ratio in the country. To my knowledge, we're the only province with an outmigration issue. So that means that when you're looking at the social transfer payments and the equalization payments, the denominator changes such that these will never really work well for us. So this is a discussion that we need to have with Ottawa moving forward.

What is the solution in your mind to plugging that outmigration issue that we've been challenged with for so many years?

I think that we need to develop opportunities for the youth of our province and develop opportunities for immigrants in the province. And one of the things that I've talked about a lot in the last couple of months is the idea of technology and developing an ecosystem here for technology. Look, there's nothing particularly special about Waterloo or Silicon Valley. It's just that they created a good ecosystem for technology development and I think that we've seen as Newfoundlanders and Labradorians that we're good at this space. We're creative and we're entrepreneurial and you can see that either in CoLab or Verafin. And we need to build on that ecosystem to attract firms here to grow that sector. But we need to develop a pipeline to that and similar to what we did with oil and gas in the late '80s and early '90s for high school students and university students. We need to develop through K-12 coding opportunities in the schools and then develop targeted investments in our university and colleges towards technology, and provide a labour force for that developing ecosystem, whether it's in retraining displaced Newfoundlanders and Labradorians or developing healthy immigration strategies so that there is a labour force presence to grow and sustain a healthy technological environment.

And of course you can develop that strategy to other renewable economic opportunities like arts and entertainment. I truly believe that we've just scratched the surface of our potential with arts and entertainment in this country and around the world.

What role does oil and gas play in your vision of the short- and the long-term future in this province?

Oil and gas is incredibly important right now. It's 30 per cent of our GDP and it's the reason why we're able to provide a lot of the services we are able to provide. So it's an incredibly important economic driver, but we realize right now that … the environment is the No. 1 priority around the world and I think that Newfoundland and Labrador is perfectly positioned in this environmental revolution, not dissimilar to the Industrial Revolution, as the world transitions from non-renewable to renewable energy sources.

We have some of the lowest carbon footprint oil around the world. It's not landlocked. We don't need pipelines. We have some of the sweetest crude products to deliver around the world and we need to invest in that and capitalize on that while it's still valuable. But then balance that on the other side of the equation by investing in what we're also very lucky to have an abundance of, which is clean, green energy. We can be the battery that drives the Eastern Seaboard, for sure.

If you do win this race, it will be your first time in public office. And you've said that you don't intend to be a career politician. So what makes you the leader for this moment in time?

I think that I have an outside vision and experience right now to lead the province in this pivotal time of our history. I think that I've proven in my life that I'm not afraid to surround myself with the best and the brightest. I think that's what defines my leadership style. You can't know everything about everything, but you need to attract the best and the brightest to be able to provide the best evidence to make the best decisions and create the best frameworks moving forward. And I think that's something that I bring to the table and hopefully be able to leverage for the future of Newfoundland and Labrador.

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