Andrew Furey is losing sleep, and that's not such a bad thing right now
Premier-designate parts ways with Dwight Ball over approach to debt
Quidi Vidi Lake looked practically empty on Wednesday. Sure, there were some walkers on the trails and just a little activity on the pond (windsurfing? Go for it), but there were no races, no crowds on the bank, no Up The Pond, nothing delicious to eat from the Hindu Temple tent.
It wasn't the only empty space that ought to have been full this week of people, noise and colourful signs.
On Monday, the Liberals gathered at the St. John's Convention Centre to announce the winner of their leadership race. To be more precise, a few Liberals gathered. Most — including MHAs, retired notables and the rank-and-file who ordinarily would be making a racket and waving banners — had to stay away. A slight number of chairs were spread far apart.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which called down the Royal St. John's Regatta for the first time since Hitler's blitzkrieg was at full steam, delayed the Liberal leadership and made its conclusion a lightly attended affair.
In a way, the pandemic really just pushed back an outcome that was widely seen as inevitable: the selection of Andrew Furey as the party's leader, and thus the 14th premier of Newfoundland and Labrador.
In another way, though, the pandemic gave the province extra time to take the measure of a new player on the political stage. Furey, an orthopedic surgeon best known for founding the Team Broken Earth medical missions after a catastrophic earthquake in Haiti, grew up in a politically connected family (his father, George Furey, has had quite the life — growing up in the Mount Cashel Orphanage and becoming Speaker of Canada's Senate). The younger Furey no doubt learned things about how the proverbial sausage gets made behind the scenes, but has had until now no experience in elected politics.
To the telling of his leadership opponent John Abbott, among many others who weighed in through social media, Furey is short on specifics when he answers questions about policy. That's fair criticism: Furey did make some detailed promises during the campaign, but his general tack is talk widely and generally.
What are Furey's priorities?
That said, I've had the impression that Furey does have cards he wants to play, but he's holding them closely to his chest. We'll likely start seeing them on Aug. 19, when he is sworn in.
Furey has, though, talked repeatedly since the winter about Newfoundland and Labrador's debt, and the fact that our debt-servicing demands have become unsustainable.
More recently, he's made even more pointed comments about the debt and the province's other financial problems, including rising unemployment and sharply dropping revenues.
"I am frightened. I am worried. It keeps me up at night," Furey said in an interview with Roger Bill for iPolitics. Published soon after his victory, Furey's comments didn't have much of that victory lap sensation. To the contrary, the focus was on the formidable financial crisis on the agenda, and the seemingly insurmountable problem of working with a shrinking and aging population.
It's telling that on Monday evening, soon after winning the race, Furey said his first priority was to get a briefing from the Department of Finance. Still, he also said he would not be looking for widespread cuts, adding that now is not the time for "significant austerity."
But that doesn't mean cuts have been ruled out. The Ball government stuck to cuts largely by attrition: that is, not filling all jobs as they become vacant. While those job numbers do add up, Furey is already clear there will be a change in direction. The net debt, after all, is now at $16.7 billion.
"Attrition is not enough," Furey said in the iPolitics interview, adding, "Government has to be right-sized."
This comes as a departure, to say the least, from the tone set at Confederation Building in the last few years. I've written before about how Finance Minister Tom Osborne has said the worst is behind us, on account of the deficit getting smaller … even though the debt, the much more serious problem, has been increasing. (And all of that was before the $2.1-billion deficit announced two weeks ago, which was oddly described as not being the worst in history.)
A change in the political wind
Premier Dwight Ball rarely projected a sense of urgency about the debt. Part of that may be Ball's easygoing style, but it may also be due to Ball's own political priorities. It's still telling that one of Ball's first acts as premier in 2015 — when the province's finances were in poor shape — was to cancel an increase in the harmonized sales tax.
What kind of style will Andrew Furey have? We don't know.
Furey says the status quo will no longer work — even though he had the backing of the entire provincial cabinet. If the status quo is out, what surprises await the politicians who have become accustomed to doing things in certain ways, some of whom are career politicians?
Already, though, there are indications that Furey looks at some issues — particularly dealing with the debt — in a much more serious way than we've seen.
His tactics (he has said he is open to all ideas for cutting expenses, trimming waste and raising revenues, including selling the province's equity stake in the Hebron oil field) are yet to be revealed. The coming weeks will be critical for us all.