14 things to watch for in 2014

Political intrigue, a review of the legal aid system, weighty decisions in the offshore oil industry and a looming battle over unfunded pensions are all on the agenda for the next 12 months.
Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale says she's glad to see what she calls her toughest year come to a close. Will 2014 pose new challenges? (CBC)

We have no idea which stories will most dominate the news headlines in the coming 12 months, but we have a pretty good guess about some of the major issues that will be hard to miss. Political leaders will be fighting for their ground, a multi-billion-dollar pension problem will need to be addressed, and there are not one, but several important decisions to be made in the offshore oil industry.

Here are of things that we expect will command our attention in 2014.

1. NDP's turmoil

NDP Leader Lorraine Michael, seen here in October, will have her leadership put to the test during a meeting in May. (CBC)
The New Democratic Party will be holding a leadership meeting in May, and Lorraine Michael's political future is at stake. Michael rebuffed a call for a convention from her caucus, with two members bolting to sit as independents. The party's support plummeted in the latest CRA opinion poll, wiping out the gains that the party has made. To survive, Michael will need to marshal the support of the party brass and rank and file. If she doesn't get it, a leadership convention could well be held in the months to come. Meanwhile, there's much debate about the future of former NDP caucus members Dale Kirby and Christopher Mitchelmore. While Kirby no doubt bleeds orange, some Liberals wonder whether Mitchelmore has blood that is both literally and politically red. Independents tend not to last forever in the house of assembly; just ask Yvonne Jones (a future Liberal leader and now MP) or Tom Osborne, a former Tory cabinet minister who followed a year on his own with a decision to join the Liberal fold.

2. Justice review

In the coming weeks, expect to hear the outcome of reviews of different components of the justice system. You may remember that there were steep cuts in last March's budget, which were later spared from the chopping block. A review of the Sheriff's Office is underway, as is a separate review of legal aid services. The government has received the first, but has not yet made it public. Veteran lawyer John Roil took on the legal aid review after retired provincial court judge John Rorke withdrew from the review for personal reasons.

3. Chopper decisions

Eurocopter's Super Puma, as seen over St. John's in November. The company is trying to win a bid for an offshore contract. (CBC)
Companies flying in the offshore oil industry are expected to make a decision soon on the aircraft that will be used to carry workers to Hibernia, Terra Nova and other installations. In November, chopper giant Eurocopter flew its Super Puma aircraft in St. John's in a bid to win the contract for the work, in a competition with the Sikorsky helicopters that are now used. Meanwhile, oil companies are continuing efforts to resume night flights, which were halted during the Wells inquiry in 2010.

4. Statoil's dilemma

A Statoil executive recently mused that the company may not be able to afford pending developments in both Alberta's oilsands and Newfoundland and Labrador's offshore. The reason? Oil revenues simply are not what they used to be, even when fluttering around the $100 mark, in part because development costs have been rising continually. That means the deep-sea development that would be needed to open up the Flemish Pass may just be a bit too rich for Statoil right now. A fair bit could be at stake with the decision, as a decision to proceed sooner rather than later on properties like Mizzen could have dramatic consequences for the oilpatch, and the local economy.

5. Kathy Dunderdale's standing

Premier Kathy Dunderdale is no doubt glad to have 2013 behind her. It was the year, after all, when the Tories tumbled for a period to last place in the polls, and Dunderdale found herself ranked as the least popular premier in the country. With former cabinet ministers already speaking openly about a need for a change in direction at the top, Dunderdale will be under increasing pressure to convince Tories that she is in prime fighting condition.

6. Shall we (re)set a date?

The province may be moving the date of the 2015 election so the campaign doesn't overlap with the federal election. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)
Fixed-date legislation, which sets the provincial election for the second Tuesday in October every four years, seemed like a good idea years ago, but there appears to be a conflict with the next federal election in 2015. Some other provinces have already moved their dates; will Newfoundland and Labrador be next? There is some logic in moving the date, since many of the volunteers who work on federal campaigns pitch in for provincial ones, too.

7. Watching the deficit

A month ago, Finance Minister Tom Marshall updated the provincial ledger. The good news? The projected deficit has dropped to $450.6 million. The bad news? The government is pulling in less money from offshore oil than forecast. The government expects the forthcoming spring budget to be in the red, with balanced books expected by 2015 (conspicuously not long before the provincial election.) The government has been telegraphing that the steep cuts and job eliminations of the last budget will not be repeated in the coming budget.

8. Pensions on the table

The provincial government reached deals with most of its unionized workers on four-year contracts that include modest (some civil servants would say slender) pay increases. Those negotiations may be nothing compared to the talks set to resume this year on pensions, and more precisely on addressing an unfunded liability that was expected to grow to $6.5-billion this year. The issue is so critical that it's one of the government's overall fiscal priorities for the year.

9. Campus studies

Government will be taking a hard look at Memorial University and College of the North Atlantic in their multi-year budget plans. (CBC)
The government's multi-year budget plan also includes taking a long, hard look at Memorial University, as well as College of the North Atlantic. The stated goal, as per the budget speech in March, is "to ensure that programs are being delivered as efficiently and effectively as possible while meeting the needs of students and the economy." Those words have caused a bit of a chill on campus, as staff await news on what the review will entail. Government has been careful to not cast the review as a cost-cutting exercise. Just a few weeks ago, Marshall indicated that "any efficiencies that [university officials] find, they can keep them." Meanwhile, a decision is pending that affects not only Memorial University, but also the legal profession. A few weeks ago, a blue-ribbon panel recommended that the time was right to build a law school at the university, one of the largest in the country without a faculty of law. Such a move would not be cheap. The university is collecting responses to the committee's report for the next few weeks.

10. Interest rates

Much of the development of the last decade, particularly on the Avalon Peninsula, has been predicated not just on an oil-fueled boom, but on the easy availability of cheap money. Interest rates have been stable and relatively low that a whole generation of borrowers has come into the marketplace, unfamiliar with the double-digit headaches of years ago. Even a small hike in interest rates could have a serious effect on the residential market, not to mention commercial developments.

11. Municipal math

Municipal taxes are going up in Mount Pearl, will be frozen in St. John's and Conception Bay South (albeit with a water hike in the latter), and a poll tax will be phased out gradually in Corner Brook. Starting Jan. 1, the province's municipal operating grants formula kicks into effect, with the emphasis on helping towns with less than 11,000 people. It also means a hit for bigger municipalities … including Mount Pearl, which had to hike its taxes in part to make up for what it lost in provincial grants.

12. The skyline of St. John's

New developments will be changing the skyline in downtown St. John's in 2014. (CBC)
Some important developments will likely finish this year, including the Fortis Place development on Springdale Street and the 351 Water St. development, which will be the corporate home of Husky Energy in this province. Work continues on the St. John's Convention Centre, a hotel near George Street West and condominiums, including the former CBC Radio HQ on Duckworth Street. On the horizon (no pun intended) are other developments that are together poised to reshape to look of the city.

13. A faster signal

One of the issues that raise the dander of rural residents is the limited access to high-speed internet. Things have been improving, for sure, but 2014 is expected to be a key year. The government has set itself a target of providing broadband coverage to 95 per cent of the province by the end of the year.

14. On the arts scene ...

For book lovers, one significant event is just weeks away. Last year, Lisa Moore took the bouquet at the end of CBC Radio's annual Canada Reads literary festival, with her novel February. Kathleen Winter, who has moved to Montreal but remains a big part of the writing community in this province, is competing this year with her Labrador-set novel Annabel.

About the Author

John Gushue

CBC News

John Gushue is the digital senior producer with CBC News in St. John's.


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