Nfld. & Labrador

'Harsh medicine' on the horizon: What 2 former finance ministers are advising Andrew Furey

Two men who once held the purse strings in Newfoundland and Labrador are urging today's leaders to make decisions without fear of political fallout. As Terry Roberts writes, the current premier says he's ready to do just that.

Premier says he is ready to make tough decisions

Ross Wiseman served as a member of the House of Assembly in Newfoundland and Labrador for nearly 16 years before retiring in 2015. He was the province's finance minister from September 2014 until December 2015. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

Two men who once held the purse strings in Newfoundland and Labrador are calling on elected leaders to summon the courage necessary — regardless of the political fallout and cost to their own ambitions — to address the province's fiscal nightmare.

And the man who left a successful medical career in order to enter politics says he's ready to do just that, with a caucus he says is united and committed to action.

In the wake of the release of the Moya Greene report, former Progressive Conservative finance ministers Ross Wiseman and Tom Marshall are weighing in with some strongly worded advice for today's crop of elected leaders.

"If you can't consider the greater good of the province, then it's really the time to start reflecting whether this is the kind of career you want to have," Wiseman said in an interview. 

"The politicians have to be courageous enough to do the right thing, and be prepared to be defeated for doing the right thing," Marshall told CBC News.

At the end of what's been another jarring week for a province trying to avoid the embarrassment of having politicians from Ottawa or bankers from Toronto dictating how the province should be run, Premier Andrew Furey was sounding like he's ready to tackle what he called the "pivotal moment in our collective history."

Former premier Tom Marshall also served three separate stints as Newfoundland and Labrador's finance minister. With the province facing fiscal disaster, he is calling for elected leaders to put aside any political self-interest and make the courageous decisions that are necessary to address the problems. (CBC)

With Greene's report revealing that the province's entire public debt is more than $47 billion, Furey replied with a simple "yes" on Friday when asked if he's willing to make decisions that will make it difficult to get re-elected in four years.

"We have to tackle it. There's no ignoring this any longer," he said.

Consequences of inaction dire: Wiseman

Unpopular cuts and tax increases can sometimes spell doom for politicians, but Furey said the 22 Liberals who won seats in the recent provincial election "are united in the fact that we know these are real problems that have been brewing for a long time."

Both elected and former politicians appear to agree that the Greene report, with a recipe of spending cuts and across-the-board tax and fee hikes, is a good starting point for the province.

"Some of this medicine is going to be pretty harsh … but the consequences of not doing it are even more dire," said Wiseman, who won four elections in the former electoral district of Trinity North before retiring from politics six years ago.

Wiseman was finance minister in the PC government of former premier Paul Davis, and delivered a belt-tightening budget in 2015 that included tax increases and a plan to reduce public servants in the face of a $1.1-billion deficit.

So Wiseman was more than a casual observer when Greene revealed the contents of the economic recovery team's final report last week. 

Called The Big Reset, it recommends sweepings changes to the way the province is governed, and proposes deep cuts to critical public services such as health and education.

Wiseman said the pattern of deficit spending, with average cash shortfalls of 25 per cent in recent years, and a net debt that has grown by $12.6 billion over the past seven years, has to be addressed.

Premier Andrew Furey said Friday that Newfoundland and Labrador is 'at the end of the road' when it comes to tackling its fiscal problems. (John Pike/CBC)

He said political self-interest has to be pushed aside, and the public has to accept that the status quo is not an option.

"The people of the province got to recognize that if they want … a government that has some fiscal flexibility to continue to provide dire needed services, then they're going to need to change their expectations," said Wiseman.

Familiar warnings

It's the type of warnings and advice citizens have been hearing for years as the province has staggered from one financial crisis to another, with the global pandemic and related downturn in the oil and gas industry serving as the latest double-blow.

But long before COVID-19, auditors general and other financial experts have issued repeated warnings that the province's fiscal situation is unsustainable, and the Muskrat Falls project has compounded the situation.

Teams from the provincial and federal governments are working on a strategy to reduce the burden of Muskrat Falls once the hydro and transmission projects are completed this fall, with electricity rates poised to double once the $13.1-billion project is commissioned.

The project will add more than $600 million in annual expenditures to a province that is already borrowing more than $1 billion just to cover interest payments on the net debt.

Moya Greene delivered the long-awaited final report of Newfoundland and Labrador's economic recovery team on May 6. (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador)

The Greene Report is a ground-shaking blueprint for recovery, with recommendations that will affect the lives of every citizen as taxes go up, services are streamlined or privatized, and public service jobs are eliminated as hundreds of million in spending is slashed.

Furey signalled in a recorded video address to the province Thursday evening that tax increases will be necessary, and that urgent structural changes in health and education are imminent.

"We can longer afford to kick the can down the road. We're at the end of the road," said Furey, an orthopedic surgeon who took over as premier nine months ago, and won a slim majority government in late March.

Contributing to the cure

Tom Marshall, meanwhile, who served eight months as premier in 2014, said citizens need to prepare for a serious shakeup.

"Everyone who's receiving money from the government has to contribute to the cure," Marshall said.

I take responsibility for what I did while I was finance minister as part of the government, as does the entire cabinet.- Tom Marshall

Marshall served three different stints as the province's finance minister, and much of it during unprecedented financial prosperity as oil revenues filled the province's coffers.

Marshall presided over a string of surplus budgets, and described the situation in 2008 as an "economic boom."

Through several surplus budgets, the PCs shaved $4 billion off the net debt, but spending also soared.

There was a hiring spree that saw the public service grow by around 3,000 positions, and wages increased beyond the rate of inflation.

The government also undertook a building boom at a time when the construction industry was already at peak, meaning costs were sky-high.

Finance Minister Siobhan Coady will deliver Newfoundland and Labrador's 2021-22 budget on May 31. (CBC)

"I take responsibility for what I did while I was finance minister as part of the government, as does the entire cabinet," said Marshall.

Wiseman said the Greene report has also caused him to reflect on his own time as finance minister.

"Some of the things that we did, some of the things we could have done differently, possibly."

But both said the time for blame has passed.

Marshall said politicians, business and union leaders have to summon the conviction required to tackle the problem, and that will likely mean cuts to health and education.

"That's where the money is being spent," he said.

Finance Minister Siobhan Coady will deliver the next budget on May 31. Ross Wiseman said it will provide the first test of whether this government is willing to lead the province through this crisis.

 "If they choose to do nothing … to deal with the fiscal situation, that will tell the province clearly that they don't have the political will to make the hard decisions and do what needs to be done to start us on the right course," he said.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Terry Roberts is a journalist with CBC's bureau in St. John's.

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