Muskrat Falls 'legacy project for some,' burden for rest of us: throne speech

Throne speech set for 2 p.m. today, could provide insights into next week's budget

Newfoundland and Labrador's Liberal government pointed fingers at its predecessor in Tuesday's throne speech, saying it is too late to cancel the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric megaproject, which it suggested was a vanity project by the Progessive Conservatives.

"Our government inherited Muskrat Falls, a legacy project for some, a tremendous financial burden for us all," reads the speech, which Lt.-Gov. Frank Fagan began reading at 2 p.m. NT Tuesday in the House of Assembly.

The speech said provincial governments had committed approximately $6.6 billion dollars towards the project when the Liberals formed government.

Too much has been invested, and too much has been contractually promised to Nova Scotia, to cancel the project, government said.

"We are in too deep," it said. "Canceling the project is not feasible and it would put more financial burden on the people of this province."

The speech is designed to lay out the Newfoundland and Labrador government's priorities for its next session.

But it took multiple shots at the Progressive Conservative governments which were in power between 2003 and 2015.

"For over a decade, the province was operating without a plan for a sustainable future," the Ball government said. "That had to change."

"Our government inherited a deep rooted reliance on oil, and with it, a culture of overspending."

Doing 'better with less'

The speech comes just a week before the April 6 budget, where Finance Minister Cathy Bennett will deliver the fiscal blueprint for the next 12 months.

While negotiations with public service unions are headed to conciliation, government suggested the type of management cuts seen earlier this year in core departments will be repeated in agencies, boards and commissions.

The throne speech did not preview any big spending slashes, instead re-iterating commitments already made in the government's The Way Forward plan.

"We will do better with less," it promised, saying government will work with the private sector to create jobs.

Government flagged three previously-announced actions to help wrestle with spending: A new public procurement act, the zero-based budgeting approach, and a departmental reorganization.

A new cabinet committee on jobs will help identify opportunities, according to the speech.

Some concrete actions

The provincial government promised greater investment in aquaculture, but also said companies would face rigorous criteria to keep their licences.

It will attempt to increase salmon production to 50,000 metric tonnes a year, and also promised an action plan for cod revitalization.

The Wooddale tree nursery is to be transformed into a centre for agriculture and forestry development, with fruits and vegetables added to the central Newfoundland facility. That's part of the government's plan to improve the province's food security and self-reliance.

The speech also previewed changes in the health care and education sectors, promising a new approach to all policy decisions that would consider "health impact."

It also promised to implement the Pharmacy Network plan, which would allow doctors to review a patient's drug history before they write a prescription, in an effort to curb inappropriate prescribing.

Government said the province has the highest per-capita spending on programs, but has some of the poorest health outcomes.

"Put simply, we are not seeing a sufficient return on investment. Further, poor outcomes drive spending higher," it said.

While it mentioned the long-standing tuition freeze for undergraduate students at Memorial University, it did not pledge to ensure the freeze remains in place.

However, more options will be available to at-risk Grade school students, government said, by expanding options for high-school equivalency testing, and increasing opportunities for distance education.

Government will also look to increase child care subsidies to low income families.