Vote-hungry politicians offer praise, reassurance to business community during economic recovery forum

·4 min read

Business leaders in St. John's worried about possible tax hikes following the Feb. 13 provincial election are likely breathing a sigh of relief following an economic recovery forum on Friday.

In fact, the New Democrats and the Progressive Conservatives speak of tax breaks as a strategy to grow the economy and rebound from a troubling fiscal situation that many say is unsustainable, while the incumbent Liberals are planning what they say is a measured, balanced approach.

That was one of the highlights Friday as representatives from all three major political parties took part in a virtual forum hosted by the St. John's Board of Trade that saw participants questioned about everything from immigration and public sector reform to Muskrat Falls and the province's crushing debt burden.

Big job losses

The forum was timely because it coincided with the release of new data that suggests the fate of the economy is the No. 1 issue on the minds of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians as they head to the polls next week.

It also followed the release of a report by the C.D. Howe Institute that is recommending "strong corrective action" by the province to address "program spending that is significantly and chronically in excess of other provinces."

New statistics from the federal government also revealed that the economic situation is far from rosy, with employment dropping by 2,700 jobs in January. It was the first drop in employment since April, according to Statistics Canada.

The unemployment rate also increased to 12.8 per cent, the highest among all provinces.

While all three party leaders were invited to the forum, only Alison Coffin, leader of the New Democrats and a candidate in St. John's East-Signal Hill, attended.

Burgeo-La Poile MHA Andrew Parsons answered questions on behalf of the Liberal Party, which is seeking a majority after holding onto power in a minority situation for nearly two years, while Topsail-Paradise candidate Paul Dinn represented the PCs.

'Anxiety about taxation'

The first question from Justin Ladha, incoming president of the board of trade, highlighted the gap between expenditures and revenues and asked how the parties plan to address it.

Ladha said there is "anxiety about taxation" among board members, but all three politicians avoided any talk of tax increases.

There was a stream of platitudes from the politicians about the vital role of small businesses, about the importance of growing the technology industry and expanding broadband internet services, and about setting the stage for established businesses to grow, while enticing foreign companies to invest in the province.

Coffin said the NDP would eliminate the tax on small businesses, but she was not challenged on her party's pledge to increase the minimum wage to $15, which is opposed by the board of trade.

Despite warnings that the province has to trim wage costs from the public service in order to reduce expenses, Coffin repeated her pledge to strengthen government services "so people can avail of the services to improve their overall lives."

PCs to trim payroll tax

As part of their job creation strategy, Dinn said, the PCs would reduce the payroll tax for companies that beef up their hiring, and reduce government red tape.

"We need to do what we can to create an environment that allows businesses to prosper," he said.

As for wage costs, Dinn said the PCs would do a line-by-line review of expense so "we have the right number of positions and skill sets; not just for today but for future days to come."

On the issue of job cuts, Parsons echoed the Liberal promise to "avoid shock to the system" and close the spending gap with "smarter spending" and "debt management."

The Liberals are also betting heavily on growth in the technology sector, with a promise to adjust the education system to deliver the skills demanded by companies, and to triple immigration numbers by 2026.

"I see a strong future ahead of us. We just need to take hold of the opportunities that are there," said Parsons.

Ladha said the board of trade is very supportive of policies that would increase the population, strengthen the tax base and encourage business growth during the COVID-19 pandemic, and beyond.

"We must take hold of this economic situation and fix it," said Ladha.

"We must make a decision now to ensure path for sustainability and prosperity for generations to come."

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