Picking a premier: Q&A with John Abbott
New Liberal leader and premier will be named Monday
With the race for the leadership of the Newfoundland and Labrador Liberal Party winding down, both candidates sat down for interviews with The St. John's Morning Show.
Below is John Abbott's take on what lies ahead if he is chosen to be the next leader and in turn inherits the role of premier of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Abbott spoke with guest host Jamie Fitzpatrick about the province's $16-billion debt, his ideas for rural Newfoundland, and what role Ottawa should play.
Andrew Furey's interview can be found here.
Online voting for Liberal Party of Newfoundland and Labrador members and supporters started Tuesday and runs until Monday at noon NT. The party will announce its new leader Monday.
Jamie Fitzpatrick: I want to ask you about, first of all, about the campaign that you really ran on a commitment that you are willing to make tough choices. And here we are facing what looks to be a $2-billion deficit. So as premier what tough choice do you make first?
John Abbott: I've just concluded the Province Before Politics tour so I went through all 40 districts as part of the campaign to learn first-hand what people are experiencing and their thoughts and ideas and how we deal with many of the issues facing the province when it comes to our fiscal challenges. I think everybody recognizes that it is now time to reduce the size of government, control spending and contribute to economic development. There are three priorities that I'll be focused on early in my mandate.
If you want government to be smaller and spending to be under control, does that mean eliminating jobs in the civil service? Because where do those people go to get work after that? We've already seen enough outmigration.
The one thing that needs to happen is the size of government has to be reduced, and I would start from the top. Look at the number of departments we have, look at the number of agencies we have, as well as look at the core services that we need to deliver with it, whether it's in Health or Education and Justice and make sure we have the right services and then build the government departments around that.
Yes, there will have to be reductions in the size of the workforce but that can be done in an orderly way over the next couple of years. We look at attrition, look at early retirement, we can allow people to work from home. And I think we can do that in a very safe, considerate manner so that no persons are left on the sidelines.
If you say we have to focus on the core services of government, does that mean the reduction of government would include budget cuts that go beyond who actually works in government offices and go beyond the civil service?
That would have to cover all departments, all agencies, all sectors, all programs. We have to look at everything and the expectation when I talk to people again across the province, their expectation is that we will now take this job seriously and do it once and for all so that we're not always having to be repeating these types of exercises. The opportunity now is in front of us.
The finance minister has put out the numbers. They're startling but they will require a resolve by all of us, and for me, I will make sure I consult quite broadly with our union leaders, with our business leaders, with the community sector before we make the changes we have to put forward.
Does that mean that you would be looking at putting in a pretty stiff austerity budget once you become premier?
Well, you used the word "austerity." I guess the word I would use is "realistic." And that's really what I would be focused on — what is realistic given the economic and financial circumstances we're in for the next couple of years.
What about securing money from Ottawa? You recently released a statement saying you agree with Ches Crosbie that the province should fight for its rights with Ottawa. Why align yourself with the Opposition on this one?
The issue, I think, when it comes to Ottawa and our fiscal situation is that there is a fiscal stabilization program that is in place to help provinces like ours who are facing a catastrophic drop in our revenues, particularly our oil royalties. Unfortunately, the program is not designed to meet our particular needs right now. We just need to force Ottawa to pay attention to our needs, similar to Saskatchewan, similar to Alberta, who are in a very similar situation. And that program needs to be restructured so that we can backstop the fall in our royalty revenues. Mr. Crosbie has flagged that as an issue. I agree with him on that and we can work together to bring that to Ottawa's attention.
Do you think it's realistic that we could force Ottawa in concert with other provinces to change that formula, to change how transfer payments are distributed?
I believe so and I've worked in that area in the past. I think we put forward a strong, credible argument. I'm optimistic that they will pay attention. We have our federal cabinet minister, Mr. [Seamus] O'Regan. I'm sure he will be able to help us develop those arguments. But as I said, it doesn't just apply to Newfoundland and Labrador, it applies to other provinces. So I think where there [are] several provinces bringing it to Ottawa's attention, I'm optimistic that those changes can be made.
You mentioned the declining revenues we've seen recently from the oil and gas industry. What do you think is the role of that industry in our short- and long-term future? Can we still rely on it the way we always have?
The potential for offshore oil and gas is quite significant and we're only just scratching the surface, literally. We're in a period of international change when it comes to the oil industry because the price of oil in [a pandemic]. It's a very competitive environment. We're competing with Norway, Brazil, African countries and China.
What we will need, again working with Ottawa, is to restructure some of the support programs to allow that industry to continue to survive and grow. The payback for Ottawa is significant and I think again there's a business case to be made here.
You were profiled in the Telegram earlier this week and you talked about your family's connection to resettled communities going back a generation or two. How does that personal history inform your view on the future of rural Newfoundland and Labrador?
I'm very strong on rural Newfoundland and I want to focus on revitalization in terms of both economic development and social development. My grandparents had to resettle in 1968 from Merasheen Island to Placentia and we still live back to that trauma in some respects, but the opportunities on the other side. And I think we need to look at each of our rural communities in that light. What is their potential, how do we support them, and can we support every community? Probably not. But we will look at making sure there's economic and social opportunities for all our communities. And one of the things I'm very keen on is that we look at the structure of local and regional governments to support them and to support economic development so that there is a lifeline for them.
You talked earlier about getting spending under control and making sure we focus on core services and what it is we can do best and what people need in rural life when you've got a small population spread over a lot of territory. It's aging. It's getting smaller and very costly to service. What's the solution?
The solution is getting the right mix of services for all our communities.
So when we look at health care as an example, we need to make sure we have the right services for our small, medium and larger communities.
There's a significant issue now down on the Connaigre Peninsula with St. Alban's because they're looking for emergency services. So what I will be focused on through my health plan with the health council I'm proposing is to look at how we design and structure and restructure services to meet needs for each of our communities. And after that we'll know exactly what we can afford, what we need to deliver, and I think most people should be fully apprised of what they can expect for years to come.
Beyond the core services that you talk about and some restructuring that would need to be done. Besides looking at the civil service and looking at the size of government, where else do we cut budgets?
We have to look again at all our programs and services — the support to businesses, the support to community agencies — all of those things have to be addressed. We want to make sure we are providing the most effective services at the least cost. And that's how I will be approaching that. I've had discussions with the union leadership and business leaders and I've put that out there and then I'm not getting any argument on what we need to achieve. I think the discussion is going to be around how exactly that impacts individual departments and sectors and organizations as we move forward. And we will be making sure that all people and all organizations get a say in what we're doing before we make a final plan.
So you wouldn't be in a position to say what some of those individual areas and departments would be? That's still to be decided?
All I think I can say at this point [is it] will be right across the spectrum of programs and services and organizations that are dependent on government funding.
Mr. Abbott, thanks very much for talking to us today.
Thank you, Jamie. I appreciate it.