Nfld. & Labrador

House reopens for spending bill, but Bown contract and offshore future dominate discussion

The provincial legislature begins its fall sitting with a new premier in the wings, as the Liberals look to pass a bill unpopular with opposition parties to keep funding government operations in the short term.

Opposition parties want financial transparency, accountability

The House of Assembly opened Monday, and physical distancing is part of politics in a pandemic. (Peter Cowan/CBC)

The provincial legislature reopened Monday afternoon, with a new premier in the wings and other indicators that it's politics amid a pandemic.

Question period got underway Monday with Speaker Scott Reid telling members to keep it down to avoid spreading saliva particles. He noted bottled water is available to MHAs and there are no legislative pages on duty. 

While the province's finances — including a budget and an interim supply bill — were the talk in the leadup to Monday's resumption of the legislature, it was the issues in the offshore oil industry that had MHAs lobbing taunts across the floor.

PC Leader Ches Crosbie asked what the Liberal government planned to do about the downturn in the industry, especially since Husky has threatened to axe its West White Rose extension project.

Finance Minister Siobhan Coady said she was glad to hear Crosbie raising his voice about the issue, and said her government has been involved for six months.

"These are fine rhetorical flourishes, Mr. Speaker, but actions speak louder than words," Crosbie said.

"We've been speaking about them for six months and I'm glad he's finally joined the chorus," Coady replied.

Liberals back away from Bown

Another bone of contention was the appointment of civil servant Charles Bown to head the Multi-Materials Stewardship Board.

Coady, who serves as deputy premier and handles questions in place of the unelected premier, said Bown was out of their control.

Charles Bown was a senior deputy in the Department of Natural Resources during the critical planning and sanctioning phase for Muskrat Falls. He was government's primary liaison with Nalcor Energy on the project. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

He was hired under the PC government of Brian Peckford and ascended through the ranks under Danny Williams and Kathy Dunderdale, Coady said, and Premier Andrew Furey was stuck with the contract Bown has with the provincial government.

"It's not our contract but we have to ensure we honour it," Coady said. "We've weighed all the options with care … and we made the most prudent and responsible decision for the taxpayers of this province."

Despite maintaining his $170,000 salary, the appointment can be seen as a demotion for Bown, who was a longtime deputy minister.

He was deputy minister of natural resources during the Muskrat Falls era, and he was criticized in the ensuing inquiry for not reporting massive cost overruns to his minister.

Furey spoke with reporters after question period and said he was "personally uncomfortable" with Bown's performance during his time in Natural Resources but made it clear — with a far from ringing endorsement — that he was bound by Bown's contract.

"This is the most fiscally prudent place for Mr. Bown, given the contractual obligations, for the taxpayers of Newfoundland and Labrador," Furey told reporters after question period Monday. 

'Everything on the table' for Budget 2020

With the presentation of the budget just over two weeks away, Furey said Monday that "everything is on the table," though he ruled out, specifically, selling hospitals.

"That's not something I'm interested in, for example," he said, but added that too narrow of a scope at the start won't help whip the province's finances into shape.

"Everything needs to be considered and weighed … but things can come off the table very quickly," he said. 

Premier Andrew Furey said when it comes to the getting the province in better financial shape, everything is up for consideration. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

The three-month interim supply bill will see more debate and possibly a vote later this week. 

Neither opposition party has much appetite for the Liberals' proposal for the bill to keep the wheels of public service turning, as it prepares to unveil the budget on Sept. 30.

The Liberals, as a minority government, will likely need some opposition support to pass any budget measures through the house.

Budgets are usually announced in the spring, but the pandemic disrupted that financial schedule, and in March the opposition supported a six-month $4.6-billion interim supply bill.

Leaders of both the Progressive Conservatives and the New Democratic Party indicated they were cool to the idea of another extension, but neither would definitively say they would vote down the measure. 

Both said they disliked the length of the new bill, feeling it was too long a time frame.

"We've been accommodating within reason … but to be asking for three months right now is overreaching," Crosbie said Monday afternoon.

"Three months is a large blank cheque."

NDP Leader Allison Coffin cited financial transparency as a top concern.

"I have some reservations, absolutely," she said. 

Both Crosbie and Coffin said their parties have been collaborating with the ruling Liberals throughout the pandemic-caused upheaval, with little appetite to call an election in the last few months.

Provincial NDP Leader Alison Coffin and Progressive Conservative Leader Ches Crosbie both want more financial transparency from the Liberals. (Peter Cowan/CBC)

But both said their patience is waning, and the September budget could prove a breaking point, depending on what it entails.

"My caucus and I have done yeoman's service to trying to craft a relationship with the Liberals to see a minority government work for four years," Coffin told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show.

"Our efforts have been thwarted at every turn."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show

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