Nfld. & Labrador·Analysis

How the new Tory platform pushes one theme — growth — while sidestepping a fiscal crisis

The Progressive Conservative platform is voter-friendly, and could comfort those concerned about the potential for cuts. But as Rob Antle writes, it skirts the gravity of the fiscal situation facing the province. 

Ches Crosbie once called overspending 'largest political issue of our time,' but no longer

PC Leader Ches Crosbie holds his party's blue book in St. John's on Friday. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

When Ches Crosbie launched his campaign in the fall of 2017 to become Progressive Conservative leader, one of his key priorities was a get-tough fiscal message.

"We must address the largest political issue of our time: overspending," Crosbie's campaign website noted at the time.

"We are burdening the generations on which we depend for the future."

His answer? A so-called "debt brake" law that would cap the level of debt in relation to the size of the economy.

That hawkish tone evolved into a gentler PC policy in the 2019 general election campaign, with a softer-edged plan for a Taxpayer Protection Act that could be enacted later on in a Tory mandate.

Last week, Crosbie finally rolled out his 2021 "blueprint," eight days before voters are scheduled to render their ultimate decision on who will lead Newfoundland and Labrador.

There are no brakes to be seen, as the Tories have instead opted to push the pedal to the metal with a fiesta of policy promises and a strategy of pledging to address the province's apocalyptic financial situation through growth.

It's voter-friendly, and could comfort those concerned about the potential for cuts.

But it skirts the gravity of the fiscal situation facing the province. 

'Fiscal responsibility' plank

There is a nod toward "spending smarter," by hiring an external auditor to "conduct a line-by-line expenditure review in collaboration with public sector unions and frontline workers." 

Those groups, however, are not generally known for recommending cuts to government services.

Instead, a familiar target is in the party's sights: Ottawa.

On the revenue side, a Crosbie government would take a more confrontational approach to federal-provincial relations — from the boardroom to the courtroom, the party says.

Crosbie poses for a photo while campaigning in Corner Brook last month. (Ches Crosbie/Facebook)

There are 13 separate requests directed to Ottawa, and four pages of the "fiscal responsibility" section of the platform outline an array of perceived injustices over equalization, health transfers and fisheries funding.

Earlier in the campaign, Crosbie said he would leverage the province's dire financial state in bilateral negotiations with the feds.

"Ottawa cannot afford to have a failed province, that's why they have to step up and recognize their obligations under the constitution of Canada and help us attain the level of public services that people here are entitled to," he said.

While the leader is threatening bankruptcy, the PC platform is also promising more than $93 million in new spending initiatives — something Crosbie said would be spread over a four-year period and amounts to slightly more than one per cent of one year's spending.

Other pledges could drive costs higher

But there are other potential initiatives salted throughout the 76-page blue book that could push that number higher — potentially much higher — although the Tories haven't provided specifics.

There is a clarion call to "make it a priority to ensure our public education system is adequately funded and resourced, and treated as an investment rather than an expense, regardless of the current budgetary pressures."

According to the blue book, a PC government would "guarantee quality public education for students by improving class sizes and ensuring an immediate and independent review of the teacher allocation model."

The party says that review could be done within the existing budget. But any further required outlays of cash beyond that won't be known until the results of the review come in.

Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers' Association president Dean Ingram is pictured with NDP Leader Alison Coffin, Liberal Leader Andrew Furey and Crosbie at the teachers' forum earlier this month. In his blue book, Crosbie has committed to making education a priority 'regardless of the current budgetary pressures.' (NL Teachers' Association/Twitter)

The Tories have also said they will make "needed provincial equity investments" in the offshore. But it's not clear how much money that could involve, or where it would come from.

Last year, Husky asked the province and feds to purchase equity stakes in the West White Rose project. At the time, the province quickly said it couldn't afford the "tremendous" infusion of cash required. Ottawa later declined as well.

And the PCs have a plan to allow employees to retire early if they choose. 

WATCH | Ches Crosbie announces a promise to cut the payroll tax, as part of a plan to encourage economic growth: 

Crosbie plans to cut payroll tax as part of job-creating plan

CBC News Newfoundland

3 months ago
1:35
PC leader Ches Crosbie has laid out more details of his party's economic platform, reports Mark Quinn 1:35

They will be given a retirement incentive and will not have their pension penalized, the blue book says. No one will be forced to retire.

But there are few details in the document about exactly how this would work, and how much it would cost.

The Tory campaign did not respond to inquiries before deadline seeking more details about these platform planks. 

Elastic timelines to get books back in order

Meanwhile, the party commitment to get the province's books back in order is somewhat elastic.

A PC government would "start the journey" to balance the budget during its first four years in office, and says it would get the job done by year eight.

The deficit for the soon-to-end fiscal year was mostly recently estimated at north of $1.8 billion. Just over 10 months ago, the government nearly ran out of cash, and couldn't find anyone to borrow from.

There is one reference to Newfoundland and Labrador's deficit and four mentions of the debt in the 76-page PC platform.

By contrast, the word "jobs" is used more than 100 times.

"I've told you that I agree something needs to be done. And I made a few remarks as to how we're going to do that," Crosbie said during his platform launch.

"But the focus has to be on generating the wealth, generating the jobs that will keep people here, that will unlock the potential of this province."

If he wins, he will be need to unlock that potential in a government shackled by debt, after borrowing more than $12 billion over the past seven years.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rob Antle

CBC News

Rob Antle is producer for CBC's investigative unit in Newfoundland and Labrador.

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