Nfld. & Labrador

Changes are ahead for N.L., says Furey. But what, and when, remain undefined

The premier has expanded on his vision for the province's future from a video released Thursday, but specific actions to chart a path out of the province's deep fiscal hole remain undefined.

'Will there be a little bit of pain? Of course there will be a little bit of pain,' says the premier

On Friday, Premier Andrew Furey said his government is analyzing the contents of his economic task force's report and preparing a five- to six-year plan. (John Pike/CBC)

Premier Andrew Furey has expanded on his vision for Newfoundland and Labrador's future following his "state of the province" video address Thursday, but specific actions or targets to chart a path out of the province's deep fiscal hole remain undefined.

Furey spoke to reporters on Friday morning to discuss his response to his economic task force's final report, released on April 6. He repeated the video's sentiment that "urgent action" is needed to tackle a $47-billion total debt and to keep Newfoundland and Labrador from lapsing into insolvency.

"Will there be a little bit of pain? Of course there will be a little bit of pain. But there will be long-term gain, and that's the most important thing," Furey said.

On Friday, Furey said his government is analyzing the document and plotting a five- to six-year strategy, and promised there would be action soon, without giving a date.

The economic report laid out a number of areas within the public sector that could be cut, along with tax hikes and other systemic changes to rein in unsustainable spending.

The provincial budget is scheduled to be released May 31. Furey said if anything in it resembles the economic report, such similarities "will largely be coincidence."

"But you can certainly look for strong signals about how we're moving forward."

Furey suggested not all of the recommendations in the report will be implemented but was cagey about which ones might not be.

"I think there's some things there, that I'm not prepared to share right now, that I think are probably not on," he said, but added that a lot of ideas, including taxes, are on the table.

"We have some of the lowest income taxes in Atlantic Canada, and that has to change," he said, adding that hikes would not apply to low- or middle-income earners.

"We are looking at everything" in terms of government can trim, Furey said, which includes amalgamating the province's health authorities and school boards. In regard to the civil service, Furey said the core government services mainly housed in Confederation Building in St. John's have already been trimmed to about 2004 staffing levels.

"Most of the burden — the fiscal burden, the personnel burden — right now lies in boards and agencies, and we need to be able to tackle that," he said.

Furey says most cuts to government services would come from outside Confederation Building, at the province's various boards and agencies. (CBC)

He also didn't rule out privatizing entities like the Newfoundland and Labrador Liquor Corporation or Marble Mountain ski resort, suggestions in the economic report.

Another report suggestion, to abolish Nalcor, is also being seriously considered, said the premier, especially with the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project almost completed.

"We are certainly looking at what is the future of Nalcor, " he said. "After the project is commissioned, what does Nalcor even look like?"

While budget cuts carry the threat of political unpopularity, Furey said he's willing to take steps that might mean he won't be re-elected.

MUN at 'a crossroads'

While the economic report was similarly short on specific figures or places to cut, one area was detailed: Memorial University. The report said the school's operating grant should be slashed by 30 per cent, which MUN president Vianne Timmons warned would require tripling undergraduate tuition in order to achieve.

Furey said the province can't continue to subsidize the university's students at a rate of about $21,000 a year — almost double the Canadian average — but didn't say whether he would carry out the report's recommendation. He indicated the university itself has some soul-searching to do.

"Memorial University has to figure out what it wants to be when it grows up," he said. "It has amazing potential, and it too is at a crossroads, of whether it wants to be a university for everybody every day or if it wants … to take a different route."

NDP Leader Alison Coffin says she's concerned about potential cuts to the university.

"How can we radically cut our education system and still meet the needs of people who need to adapt to a new economic reality?.… These things are contradictory, and the premier has not given us any idea of how he is going to resolve that contradiction," she said, speaking to reporters shortly after Furey.

NDP Leader Alison Coffin says she wanted to see a specific schedule for public consultations on the economic report, but that didn't happen. (John Pike/CBC)

Public consultations 'already started'

The process for holding consultations on the report has already begun, Furey said, with virtual town halls involving stakeholders and the wider public. That entire process should wrap up by August, he said.

But Coffin said there were no details on how public feedback will work.

"It would've been nice to hear him to say, 'We need to do consultations, and here's the schedule,' but we got none of that," she said.

On Friday, Furey said he released his response to the report via video without allowing questions from the media because it was son's 10th birthday on Thursday.

"His only request, with his mom in isolation, was that I take him to hockey," said the premier.

The premier suggested that what he said was more important than how he said it.

"Frankly the fact that we're talking about the format as opposed to the content is a little bit troubling," he said.

He also addressed the limiting of reporter questions during weekly COVID-19 briefings from five to three, saying it was made due to the province's current pandemic circumstances, with increasing vaccination numbers and the fact that most cases are travel-related.

If  there is a change in the public heath situation, the media availability may also be reassessed, he said.

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