Premier Kathy Dunderdale sits at the premier’s desk in Confederation Building Friday afternoon just a little over a week after her election to the post. — Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram
Businessman Dean MacDonald might be testing the political waters, but Kathy Dunderdale isn’t worried about the splash he might make.
“His party needed him three months ago, where was he? His party needs him now, where is he? (The year) 2014 might be an opportunity for Dean MacDonald,” she says sarcastically.
“The boys might be back in town 2014, 2015. Sounds like the Liberal way of doing things. I stay focused on the people of the province. That’s where I need to be. I get amused sometimes by the shenanigans that go on over there. I’ll be here in 2015. Come on.”
The premier made the comments Friday in a wide-ranging interview about the first days of her new term.
Listening to her, it’s obvious she’s had more on her mind than MacDonald’s undeclared interest in leading the Grits.
Since her historic election Oct. 11, Dunderdale’s been building a political cabinet, catching up on the work that piled up during the campaign, and getting her head around what’s next.
“It’s been a really, really busy time,” she says, sitting relaxed in a soft-covered chair in the premier’s office.
Asked what’s next — about where she wants to take the province — Dunderdale says Newfoundland and Labrador is at a pivotal place because the economy is in transition, from being based on non-renewable resources to being centred around renewable resources.
Expect that to be a major focus of her government over the next four years.
“We’ve still got a piece of work to do around Muskrat Falls (hydro-electric project) in particular,” she says, “and we continue to consider what we’re going to do with gas development, and with wind and so on.”
The fishery is another renewable resource that can expect attention from the Dunderdale government.
She says she’s willing to do what she can to help the troubled industry find its way. She hopes the sector’s players are willing to do the same.
Another focus for government will be encouraging young people to stay in the province and have families.
“So that means we talk about education, we talk about health care, we talk about infrastructure and recreation, but also keeping a keen eye on the opportunities that are created here for employment. How do we make sure people are ready to engage in those opportunities?”
Dunderdale says those are kinds of topics she’s been discussing since the election and now it’s time to prioritize an agenda and put ministers in place to drive the priorities.
She’ll “probably” name her cabinet next week, after the new MHAs are sworn-in. She is holding the cards close to her chest, and doesn’t bite when asked things like, “Will Clyde Jackman remain in fisheries?”
“I’m not going to have a bigger cabinet,” she allows, alluding to her fiscal philosophy. “I like the whole concept of lean, mean, governance.”
Dunderdale, daughter of a fisherman and part of a large family, illustrates how this mindset has roots in her upbringing. She says always knew when a tax bill came.
“I came from a family where if you had to pay $200 income tax or municipal taxes, it was a bite out of the family income.”
She continues, saying that $200 out of an almost $8 billion budget might not seem like a lot, but she always thinks about how important $200 is to those who don’t have much.
“So I think we need to be as responsible with the $200 as we are with the $200 million. So (government needs to be) lean, efficient, able to do what it needs to do to fulfill its mandate, but the leaner the better.”
Dunderdale doesn’t agree with those who suggest government spending is out of control. In last year’s budget, she notes, new spending was around two per cent.
“We’re going to try to reduce it even further,” she says.
Dunderdale also speaks about the opposition’s critique of her decision not to open the House of Assembly (see story page A8.) And she talks about why MHAs will get to discuss, but not vote on, Muskrat Falls in the legislature.
“There’s no expertise in the House, that I’m aware of, that would be able to determine that everything about this project is what it ought to be,” she says, adding critique of the project in the House to date has “not been informed by any expertise that I’m aware of at all.”
According to Dunderdale, the process the province uses for project development — which was followed on the Hebron project and is being used for Muskrat Falls — relies on the expertise of hired professionals and external audits to ensure the right decisions are made.
“That’s a very well-informed process,” she says.
While the early days after her election has come with expected criticism from the opposition, it’s also been filled with support and optimism.
One of the most wonderful surprises about being premier, Dunderdale says, is the effect on other females.
She tells the story of a meeting a woman who teared up on election night. The woman’s husband apparently asked why she was crying when she didn’t even know the premier.
“And she said, ‘it’s not about her. It’s about the fact there is a woman premier of this province, so many more things are possible now.’”
Dunderdale says the younger generation is learning that too.
When a young girl comes to her and says, “That’s Kathy Dunderdale,” she says she knows the child’s view of the world has changed.
“She now thinks that she could sit in that chair. She will grow up with that as part of her consciousness, that a women could be premier. And if a woman can be premier of this province, she can be pretty much whatever else she wants to be ... For me, that is one of the best things that’s happened out of all this.”
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