Premier Kathy Dunderdale signalled a sharp change of direction for the government in this year’s throne speech.
Newfoundland and Labrador is at a pivotal point in the province’s history, according the the throne speech delivered by Lt.-Gov. Frank Fagan Monday afternoon.
The 17-page speech celebrated the accomplishments of the PC government over the past decade, but it also came with a stern warning that the government needs to alter its course, or risk fiscal calamity.
“It is about a balanced plan, a sustainable plan,” Fagan said in the throne speech. “Let no one pretend we have arrived. Let no one pretend the need for fiscal prudence has passed.”
The speech is written by the premier’s office, and ceremonially delivered by the Lieutenant Governor.
The message coming from Dunderdale’s government was that it needs to scale back spending and operate in a more sustainable way — in fact, the title of the speech was “A sustainable future for Newfoundland and Labrador.”
The government timed the throne speech for one day before it delivers the provincial budget.
Finance Minister Jerome Kennedy has said that the government is forecasting a $1.6-billion deficit for each of the next two years. Kennedy has also been preparing people for significant cuts.
“We have to live within our means and continue to set clear and responsible priorities. It is about a balanced plan, a sustainable approach. To that end, my government embarked last year on a core mandate review to identify efficiencies and eliminate duplication and waste,” Fagan said in Monday’s throne speech. “The review protects essential functions while identifying innovative ways of consolidating and streamlining operations to meet these core functions more effectively and more affordably.”
Liberal Leader Dwight Ball blasted the government in his response to the throne speech, accusing Dunderdale and the Tory government of “reckless spending” and “a decade of lost opportunity” despite talking about fiscal restraint.
“Government’s actions rarely equal their words,” Ball said. “This is a premier and a government that walks in irony.”
New Democrat Leader Lorraine Michael was similarly unimpressed.
In her response she complained about the province’s public service is going to be “cut to the bone” in an effort to balance the budget.
Michael also tore a strip off the government for Bill 29, the comprehensive amendments to the province’s access to information legislation which greatly increase government secrecy.
In the throne speech, the government said it was “the most open and accountable government in this province since Confederation, and among the most transparent in the country.”
Michael disagreed, calling it a “backwards step” for transparency.
“Do they think people are stupid in this province?” she said in her response to the throne speech. “I know the people in the province aren’t stupid, Mr. Speaker, because the people of the province are telling us what they are seeing with this government. They see Bill 29 for what it is, Mr. Speaker.”
When it was Dunderdale’s turn to speak, she dismissed Michael and Ball entirely, saying she heard “not one constructive suggestion” from either of them.
“No plan, no vision, no hope,” Dunderdale shouted at opposition politicians in the House of Assembly
Speaking to reporters, Dunderdale said the major shift in direction is necessary.
She talked about the 2004 budget, and the Tory government’s decision to spend $3.5 million to buy fish quotas as part of a deal to keep the Arnold’s Cove fish plant open.
“Those quotas today are worth about $16 million, and if the cod returns like it’s expected to, they’ll be worth considerably more than that.
“They’re the kinds of strategic investments that we’ve made, even when we didn’t have any money. And it’s paid off,” she said.
“We’re always going to have to be making investments so we don’t get back to where we were before, but we’re at a place now where we have to ramp back that spending.”
Dunderdale said that because of the cuts the government is looking at, the deficit won’t be $1.6 billion, as originally forecasted, but she wouldn’t give any hints on what the final number will be.
She also confirmed that today’s budget will contain a long-term map for how to manage the province’s finances, and mitigate the wild swings that come from volatile oil prices.
“We need to lay out a 10-year plan, and that’s what you’re going to see,” Dunderdale said.