Premier Kathy Dunderdale speaks to the media following question period at the House of Assembly Thursday afternoon. — Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram
The governing PC Party is saying it’s going to be a busy month in the legislature, and it won’t all be about Muskrat Falls.
But whether it’s the ear-splitting exchanges in question period or the mid-year fiscal update, it looks like nearly everything in the next few weeks will be coloured by the $7.4-billion Muskrat Falls megaproject.
Government house leader Darin King said they’re looking at a busy agenda once they get into the House of Assembly Monday, with plenty of legislation including health care, justice and labour issues.
But even though there will be no formal debate on Muskrat Falls, expect the Liberals and the NDP to spend all their time talking about the lack of debate over the megaproject.
Negotiations broke down weeks ago on the format for a special debate, and the Liberals and the PCs are still playing the blame game, a game that will almost certainly carry over into the legislature.
“Their position was they refused to participate in any special debate or allow the rules to be changed in any way unless they were prepared to bring witnesses, and from our perspective, that was a fundamental principle that we weren’t prepared to compromise,” King said.
Liberal Leader Dwight Ball had a different take on the situation.
“It’s absolutely all the government’s fault,” Ball said.
The Liberals have said that without expert witnesses answering questions from MHAs, they can’t have a meaningful debate.
“We started looking for information in July, and none of it was forthcoming,” Ball said.
“The department of Finance stuff, as an example, we only got our first response back (Wednesday).”
Premier Kathy Dunderdale has said the government is on track to make a final sanctioning decision on Muskrat Falls by the end of the month, but the real fireworks could come later on in December.
Dunderdale told reporters this week the government will likely be introducing one or more pieces of specific legislation later on to enable the Muskrat Falls project.
Already, both the Liberals and the NDP have mused about filibustering that legislation.
King said if things go down that road, the PC Party is ready to wade through a filibuster if that’s what it takes to get things done.
“As we’ve demonstrated, government will be prepared to participate in that process for a long period of time, but at some point in time, you know, if there’s no closure being brought, government will have to make the decision,” he said.
“I would hope that there would be a spirit of co-operation and that any debate that the opposition engages in would be for the purposes of improving the legislation and for providing good information to the public, not simply for filibustering to keep things going for the sake of keeping things going.”
But King said the government is going to be tackling a broad range of policy issues in the legislature.
“I don’t want to lose everything else under Muskrat. Because Muskrat is important and it’s going to be front and centre, but there are a lot of other important issues as well that have to come forward,” he said.
“‘I think you can expect four to five good solid weeks of debate on important issues.”
In the spring, the government made it clear that they’re looking to rewrite the Public Tendering Act, and that legislation will very likely get passed this fall.
“We’re trying to work that through in a very comprehensive way, protecting all the values and transparency and accountability that’s so important to the people of the province,” Dunderdale said. “That’ll be a major, major piece of work.”
Dunderdale said the big problem with the current legislation is that it’s too strict, and drives the government to the lowest cost bid.
“The old act is not serving the people of the province well anymore,” she said. “Lowest cost doesn’t always get you the best value.”
In the next month the government will also deliver its mid-year fiscal update, where Finance Minister Tom Marshall is expected to announce that the deficit has ballooned to more than $500 million, due to lower-than-forecast oil prices.
Opposition politicians are already saying that the deficits are a signal that the government has a systemic problem with their finances.
“I’m expecting extremely bad news,” NDP Leader Lorraine Michael said.
“I think government has to look very seriously at the revenue issue going into the future. We have to look at where else revenue can come from.
“One place it could certainly look at is royalties from mining. Mining is an extremely lucrative industry in this province, but actually that industry is getting away with quite a bit when it comes to the royalties they pay.”
Ball similarly called for the government to restructure its finances, and put natural resource revenue into a separate pot, instead of relying on it so heavily for year-to-year revenue.
The fall sitting of the legislature will start at 1:30 p.m. Monday afternoon.