Nfld. & Labrador

Abbott, Furey battle over health care, nurses in CBC Liberal leadership debate

Liberal leadership hopefuls John Abbott and Andrew Furey continued their respective campaign drives Thursday evening, with a one-hour debate on CBC's Here & Now.

Questions were submitted by residents across the province

Heated discussion of health care was front and centre Thursday during a one-hour debate between Liberal leadership hopefuls John Abbott and Andrew Furey on CBC's Here & Now

Furey accused Abbott of not doing enough to fix health care while he held a senior position in the government, while Abbott pushed back against accusations he did not value the work of nurses.

Abbott spoke about his experience in government during the debate, including his role as the province's deputy minister of health, but Furey challenged his decision-making when it came to health and pandemic planning.

You've had your chance.- Andrew Furey

"The double-edged sword with experience is you had a chance, sir, you had a chance to make a difference, to influence where our province is, and it wasn't capitalized on," Furey said.

"You've had your chance, you've had 20 years to make a difference, and yet now you're trying to be the agent of change. That's not reconcilable."

Abbott said his role wasn't to make decisions about health care but to advise the minister and the department, and added the province would be in "a different place" if the provincial government had followed his advice.

He also fired his own shots at Furey, accusing him of lacking detail in his campaign platform.

"My problem in challenging in this campaign is that I feel like I'm shooting at shadows, because I'm not seeing specifics from your campaign," Abbott said.

Nursing numbers

The animated exchange between the two candidates spilled over into a conversation about nursing.

Abbott was ousted from his role with the Department of Health after he spoke candidly with CBC about his views that the province's health-care system was too costly and had too many nurses.

Andrew Furey challenged John Abbott on his time in government and his stance on nurses in the province. (CBC)

He stood by those comments Thursday, and said the province has 40 per cent more nurses per capita than the rest of the country. He said it's important to examine how those nurses are working to make sure they get the resources and respect they need.

"Are we managing them and working with them well? That's where the nurses union and I see it similarly," he said.

"We've got to manage our workforce much more effectively."

Furey said he has seen the workload placed on nurses first-hand while working in the hospital, and he disagrees there are too many nurses in the province.

"I don't subscribe to the idea that they're not being utilized well. I've seen them work until they can't work anymore. I've seen nurses leave their jobs because they're too stressed," he said.

"We need to make sure that we respect them, that they're being employed in the right way."

Abbott says the province would be 'a different place' if the Department of Health had listened to his guidance while in government. (CBC)

Child care

The candidates also butted heads over a plan for child care in the province.

Furey announced plans Tuesday to roll out $25 a day child care within the next two years if he becomes premier, a program that he said will get more parents into the workforce and grow the economy.

"I think that we have a demographic issue and a labour force issue, that will eventually lead to a loss of productivity and result in less revenues for the province," Furey said during the debate.

"Yet we have a labour force that we're not accessing fully … $25 a day daycare will ensure that we can unlock untold potential within a labour force here."

But Abbott called that plan "short-sighted," and said the province would still need an extra 7,000 child care spaces. He said the province should also fully fund a junior kindergarten program to get kids learning at an earlier age.

"The sooner that we can have children attached to learning, the more effective we are going to be in the long term," Abbott said.

"All of this is tied together in making sure our children are ready for this world and that women can come into the labour force."

Minimum wage

Abbott and Furey also had different visions for minimum wage in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Abbott called it "inexcusable" that so many workers in the province don't make a living wage and committed to increasing the minimum to $15 an hour within two to three years, if he becomes premier.

Furey failed to commit to a $15 an hour minimum wage, or any significant increases to the minimum wage, instead calling for an Atlantic-wide minimum that would be tied to the consumer price index.

"What generally happens in the Atlantic provinces is we're out competing with each other, no one wants to be last when it comes to the minimum wage," he said.

"We need to all work together to move toward a harmonized minimum wage that's tied to CPI that will give people that affordable wage that they can grow and develop a sustainable way of life."

Both men were in favour of a federal universal basic income, however, as a tool to lift people out of poverty. The two candidates also agreed that more needed to be done to support Innu children in care and both committed to working with the Innu Nation to make the necessary changes.

If you want business as usual, politics as usual, I'm not your choice.- John Abbott

Abbott said if he's elected, he'll operate differently than past governments.

"If you want business as usual, politics as usual, I'm not your choice. But imagine what it would be like if for once, we made decisions based on the best for you and our province, not politics," he said.

Furey also said he'd make change if he becomes the province's next premier.

"To change any system, you must be able to challenge it. To date, I've been neither a politician nor a bureaucrat, but I am a change maker, and I'm ready for it full-time."

Either Abbott or Furey will be the next leader of the provincial Liberals — and by extension the premier. (CBC)

CBC journalist Peter Cowan acted as the moderator for the debate, and posed questions chosen from more than 150 submissions from residents across the province. 

There was no fixed time limit for candidates to answer a specific question. 

The Liberal Party of Newfoundland and Labrador will declare a new party leader — and premier to replace outgoing Premier Dwight Ball — during a virtual convention on Aug. 3 in St. John's.

Furey stands out as the front-runner, as he's already received the support of most Liberal cabinet ministers and MHAs, painting Abbott as the underdog, despite his lengthy career in government.

Furey also appears to have an institutional advantage over Abbott, as Furey's team began contacting Liberal party members on his behalf before the campaign had even started. A few months later, a cabinet minister's assistant invited 11 other ministerial aides to work on Furey's campaign, with suggestions that they make calls during working hours.

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