In a grim, bitter presentation at Memorial University Friday afternoon, economics department head Wade Locke painted an utterly bleak picture of the Newfoundland and Labrador economy.
“Anything good, Newfoundland is currently at the bottom,” Locke said, summarizing the economic indicators.
“Anything bad, Newfoundland is currently at the top.”
The unemployment rate is high, the population is shrinking, people in the province are older and sicker than anywhere else in Canada. Government spending is high, debt is climbing and the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project is a massive problem, Locke said.
While he didn’t offer any clear solutions, Locke offered a few suggestions for how the government might tackle the economic wreckage that the province is coping with. For starters, he said, there needs to be a much clearer plan.
“‘The Way Forward’ sounds better than ‘We Will End Up Somewhere,’ but the latter is probably no more precise than the former,” Locke said, referring to the Liberals’ signature policy blueprint.
One of the biggest problems facing the province, Locke stressed, is the fact that health care spending in Newfoundland is higher than anywhere else in Canada, and it takes up a huge portion of the provincial budget.
Nevertheless, he pointed out Newfoundland leads the country in diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity and alcohol consumption. He said he personally embodies three of the four, only because he gave up drinking a few years ago.
Locke said that because of the complexity of the problem, and the stakes involved, the province needs a royal commission to study the health care system.
Locke also called for an inquiry into the Muskrat Falls project, despite the fact he prominently endorsed the hydroelectric megaproject before sanctioning.
“Stopping Muskrat Falls is not an option. However, it is unambiguous that we need a comprehensive inquiry into all the issues surrounding the development of Muskrat Falls,” he said.
Locke said his belief in the project was based in part on demand forecasts that turned out to be incorrect; after sanctioning the project, Nalcor revised its anticipated demand for electricity, reducing it significantly.
“There would not have been a need for Muskrat Falls and other options would have been feasible — that is, at a lower cost,” Locke said.
In spite of it all, Locke said people in the province still need to feel hopeful, and he believes it’s possible to fix things. He said the first step is demanding clearer answers from the provincial government about what its plan is.