Nfld. & Labrador

Tough economic choices ahead, Cathy Bennett warns

The new finance minister acknowledges there are tough times ahead, but Cathy Bennett also believes Newfoundland and Labrador can weather the economic crisis.

Liberal government wants input from residents of province

Finance Minister Cathy Bennett wants input from Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to help solve the province's economic woes. (CBC)

The new finance minister acknowledges there are tough times ahead — but Cathy Bennett also believes Newfoundland and Labrador can weather the economic crisis. 

Bennett says the province is facing enormous fiscal challenges, and maintaining the status quo is not an option.

"These are unprecedented times with the shift in the oil price, a number of factors that have gotten us to the place where if things don't change we're looking at consecutive years of multi-billion dollar deficits," Bennett told CBC Radio's Central Morning Show this week.

They didn't plan for a rainy day. And, you know, it's raining.- Cathy Bennett

Bennett says it's partly past mismanagement that's gotten the province into the financial mess it faces.

"We didn't get to this situation in a couple of months. It took years to get here, years, I would argue, of poor planning by the former governments," Bennett said. 
"They didn't plan for a rainy day. And, you know, it's raining."

'We cannot avoid them'

Now the government must make the difficult decisions on how to manage the financial hand it's been dealt.
"Some of those things are going to be hard choices, but make no mistake about it — we will need to make those decisions. We cannot avoid them."
Now, Bennett said, the government wants people right across the province to get involved in helping them make the difficult decisions ahead.

She said government has specific issues they want people to think about.

Residents are being asked to identify three things the government could stop doing; three things the government could do to raise revenue, and how government can be more innovative and efficient in providing services at a lower cost.

"We have a very small population based on a very large geographical land mass that we have to provide services to," said Bennett.

"And those are considerations that will undoubtedly feed into discussions that people of the province... have about identifying the things that we absolutely need to do and the things that we want to do." 

Earlier the Liberal government reversed the HST hike that had been planned to take effect in the new year. It also had said there would be no public sector layoffs.

But now Bennett is not making any promises.

"Everything is on the table and we have to make sure that we don't leave anything that potentially could help us move to the destination that we all want to get to...So, my answer would be everything is on the table."

Innovation now needed

Bennett also believes it's now time for the province to innovate, to come up with our own best practices and ways of delivering services to suit the province's unique needs — particularly on the health-care front.
"We need to think about ways that we can do service delivery in a much different way," she said.

"We can no longer wait to steal shamelessly ideas from our neighbours. We have to create those ideas here in our communities and we have to implement them."

Bennett also believes the province has relied far too heavily on oil as an economic driver - to the detriment of other resources and potential sources of revenue.

"The provincial economy was so focused on leveraging one resource line, that we neglected — and I think it's an example of mismanagement — we neglected to focus on areas where we can diversify our economy using other resources, and forestry, fisheries are two excellent examples of how we need to do that."

Long term outlook positive

Despite the dismal financial outlook, Bennett remains optimistic about the future of Newfoundland and Labrador.

She admits there are challenges requiring tough choices, but in the long-run, she believes there are bright days ahead.

Bennett said she's spoken to lenders and economists over the past couple of weeks and she believes when they see the province working together and making mature, responsible decisions around our economic reality, it will shore up our reputation.

But that doesn't mean the province can sit and wait for the sun to shine again.

"We have to make sure that we're doing the tough stuff ... it's going to require that we all work together and we encourage every Newfoundlander and Labradorian to participate in these engagement discussions," she said.

Bennett said there are many ways to do that, including through the government's web site, a dialogue app, email and a toll-free number. 

There are also going to be town halls and stakeholder meetings.

"Over Christmas, lots of people were [telling] me, 'Congratulations Cathy and you know we're really sorry that you've got to go through this, it's a heavy load,'" Bennett said.

"My response has been consistent — this is not my load, this is our load. And I believe, as I've always believed, that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians can come together and we can get this done. And we can make sure that the future is really bright for all our kids."