The Sunday Magazine

The Rock in a hard place: Clyde Wells on the looming fiscal crisis in N.L. and Labrador

In his first major interview in more than a decade — since stepping down from the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador — former premier Clyde Wells talks about how Newfoundland and Labrador got into a fiscal crisis and the political backbone needed to get out of it.

'Have a logical plan that will treat everybody fairly'

Clyde Wells has extensive experience in politics and law, most notably having served as premier of Newfoundland and Labrador from 1989 to 1996. (CBC)

During this pandemic, the people of Newfoundland and Labrador have emerged relatively unscathed — healthwise, at least. Even though there was limited spread of COVID-19, the government was slow to lift restrictions on public gatherings, a measure that paid off with a low rate of infections.

However, the financial health of the province is quite a different story. It is on life support.

The government of Newfoundland and Labrador projects a deficit of at least a billion dollars for the current fiscal year. And the province is now paying more in interest on its debt than it is spending on education.

Newfoundland and Labrador had a cash surplus when it joined Confederation in 1949, but it has recorded a deficit almost every year since.

One of the exceptions came under the government of Premier Clyde Wells.

His initiation into politics was in 1966, as a member of Joey Smallwood's cabinet, the first premier of the province. Wells resigned from that post two years later on a point of principle, and later left politics altogether to return to his law practice.

In 1987, the provincial Liberal Party elected Clyde Wells as their leader. He was elected premier in 1989 and quickly became a major national player in constitutional talks leading to the Charlottetown Accord.

As premier, Wells was laser-focused on tackling the provincial deficit and debt, by both increasing taxes and cutting spending. His government's string of austerity budgets drew criticism from the media, the public service and labour unions. And yet, remarkably, in 1993 Wells campaigned on austerity measures and the voters returned him to power with an even larger majority.

"I was berated all over the place as the king of cutbacks and so on. And there was some truth to that. But I took every opportunity I could get to explain to people why," said Wells in conversation with Anthony Germain, guest host of The Sunday Edition. "It wasn't very long, maybe six months to a year before every now and then I'd hear somebody commenting, the average citizen say, 'Well, you can't expect the government to do everything for you.'"

First and foremost, be totally honest with the electorate. Don't go sugarcoating anything, fully disclose what you're doing, why you're doing it. Have a logical plan that will treat everybody fairly- Clyde Wells

This is the first feature interview Wells has agreed to in more than a decade, since he stepped down as Chief Justice of the Newfoundland Supreme Court.

The conversation covered a wide range of subjects, including the challenges any government faces in providing services in a province with such a sparse distribution of coastal communities.

Wells closed the interview by saying he wouldn't presume to tell the winner of the upcoming Liberal leadership race, on August 3rd, how to address the debt and deficit, but he offered what he said is a "guiding approach."

"First and foremost, be totally honest with the electorate. Don't go sugarcoating anything, fully disclose what you're doing, why you're doing it. Have a logical plan that will treat everybody fairly," he said. "And if you do that, the people of the province come around. In my case, it was proven that they come around, because in the 1993 election, after four years of the most severe cutting, we had an increased majority. So I'd be confident passing on that advice to the premier."

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.

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