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Newfoundland and Labrador Tory leader Ches Crosbie tries to distance PCs from Muskrat Falls legacy

Provincial PC Leader Ches Crosbie sat down for a candid talk with Telegram reporter David Maher recently.
Provincial PC Leader Ches Crosbie sat down for a candid talk with Telegram reporter David Maher recently. - David Maher

Looking ahead to 2019

Ches Crosbie is walking a tightrope on his quest to claim the premier’s office in 2019.

The new leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Newfoundland and Labrador carries the name of arguably the most successful political dynasty in the province’s history on his shoulders.

He also carries the burden of the $12.7-billion boondoggle that is the Muskrat Falls project around his neck as head of the party that sanctioned the project, whether he likes it or not.

“The Liberals will be reminding the public of that often in the future. So, the question is how do we approach that and deal with it,” said Crosbie.

“My response to that is, look, PCs are like everybody else in this world: we’re only human. If mistakes were made — and we’ll let the inquiry tell us about that — we are only human and we just have to take the approach that that was then, and this is now.”

Crosbie says his party made decisions based on the best information available at the time.

“If it turns out to be wrong advice, then all I can say is we acted in good faith,” he said.

At the Liberal convention, Premier Dwight Ball called out Crosbie by name, suggesting he’s playing things quietly, not letting people know his policy positions.

“I don’t need to say much right now because the people of the province — to use Dr. Haggie’s catch phrase — he told the convention, ‘We have to hang together or we’ll hang separately,’” said Crosbie.

“The people of the province, judging by the polls, think (the Liberals) don’t have the right to hang separately. They will hang together.”

Muskrat Falls is a political hot potato as 2019 draws ever closer. Crosbie is keen to pass it off to Dwight Ball.

“They have as much responsibility as any priority government — no, they have more because they knew more at the time when they came to power,” said Crosbie.

“What they should have done was make sure a proper stop-go analysis was done as soon as they got into office. They frittered that opportunity away.”

In Nalcor CEO Stan Marshall’s June 2016 cost and schedule update, he says it was too late at that point to halt the project, largely due to contractual obligations that were already in place.

When it comes to what solutions Crosbie has to offer, Crosbie says there’s still research left to do before he can make commitments — particularly when it comes to sanctioning Gull Island.

The electoral history of this province shows an almost clockwork swing from Liberal to PC and back again. Every decade or so, one majority shifts to another — something Crosbie hopes to change for the first time in the province’s history.

“We have yet to work out how we’re going to digest and survive the Muskrat Falls project. It’s so far off the charts to be thinking about Gull Island that it’s not worth wasting breathe on,” he said.

Crosbie says government spending has to be addressed, but did not get any more specific than to gesture at government waste as part of the problem. He says healthcare spending needs to go down, but he’s not sure exactly how much of a decrease is possible.

“What I can tell you, is that I don’t know what the answer is. I do know that we’re spending too much. The problem with government spending is that it’s proven to be sticky. It doesn’t go down when revenue goes down,” he said.

Previous PC governments saw government spending increase as the oil revenues dramatically rose. In the 2008-09 budget, under Danny Williams, for example, the province spent $6.4 billion ($7.5 billion, adjusted for inflation). In 2015-16, the last year before the Liberals came to power, total spending was $7.9 billion. In 2018-19, government will spend $8.4 billion.

Crosbie says part of the spending problem could have been addressed by creating a legacy fund for the rainy days, rather than spending the money when we had it. But he doesn’t lay blame at the feet of the Danny Williams or Kathy Dunderdale governments, walking another fine line.

“Their justification would be that we had a lot of deferred maintenance in the highways, is an easy thing to think of. Things that we had not been spending money to maintain properly. We had to spend money just to keep things usable,” said Crosbie.

“Maybe we’ve learned a lesson from that now. If we’re fortunate enough to have surplus funds, they should be dealt with in a different fashion than we’ve seen in the past.”

The electoral history of this province shows an almost clockwork swing from Liberal to PC and back again. Every decade or so, one majority shifts to another — something Crosbie hopes to change for the first time in the province’s history.

Crosbie says the lines have been blurred between the two parties, so it’s up to him to find the difference as Election Day draws ever nearer.

“We’ve tended in this province to be Tweedledum and Tweedledee: Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives. Frankly, I think it’s to our benefit if we develop a definition of ourselves as to how we do differ from the Liberals,” he said.

“That definition will include recognizing the fact, I believe, that prosperity comes from a vibrant private sector. How do you achieve a private sector? Well certainly you can’t load up the private sector with taxes and regulations so they can barely breathe. You can’t load up consumers so that the cost of living drives people away.”

Crosbie’s task is to define his party separate from the history of previous administrations. The people’s task will be to decide whether they trust the PCs enough to give them their vote.

david.maher@thetelegram.com

Twitter: DavidMaherNL

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