POLITICS

Cash crunch, election loom as Newfoundland and Labrador legislature resumes

11/16/2014 01:00 EST | Updated 01/16/2015 05:59 EST
ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - A big question hangs over Paul Davis as he gets set Monday to begin his first sitting of the legislature as premier of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Will it be his last?

At least one observer thinks the political deck is now so stacked against the governing Progressive Conservatives that defeat is not likely a matter of if, but when.

"They can lose now or they can lose later," said political scientist Kelly Blidook of Memorial University of Newfoundland.

"I don't doubt that right now they're completely up in the air as to what it is they're doing on the election front," he said. "The budget used to look like a good thing, in the distance, that they could hope for. And I think that hope is lost now, too."

Davis is obliged under provincial law to call a general election within a year of his swearing-in as premier on Sept. 26. He took the Tory helm earlier that month after the second round of a sometimes farcical leadership process.

Davis is the third person in the top job since Danny Williams resigned in 2010, leaving a formidable hole and no clear succession plan, to resume his business interests.

Senior cabinet resignations have piled up along with five straight byelection losses in the past 16 months. Two more byelections are scheduled for Nov. 25.

All of that is on top of the fiscal pounding Davis could take as the dropping price of Brent crude plays havoc with the province's oil-dependent budget assumptions. Instead of a projected election-year surplus in 2015-16, the new premier faces a potentially far higher third straight deficit than already expected in 2014-15 and a possible fourth year in the red.

It could all add up to tough choices for a struggling Tory government in majority power since 2003.

"They really want to be able to spend in the next budget," Blidook said. "It's their only hope. And it's clear they're not going to be able to do it, or if they do, it will be really weird and probably poor governing."

Blidook said it's tough to see a bright side for the government.

"I don't mean to be all gloom and doom for them. I'm not on anybody's side," he said. "It's just all the circumstances seem to really be pointing against them right now."

Davis took pains at a luncheon last week before the St. John's Board of Trade to stress what he called his government's sound fiscal choices over the last decade and the need for a steady hand at the wheel.

In a thinly veiled shot at the Opposition Liberals, he warned of those peddling political change for their own gain.

But Davis was vague when asked if, as previously indicated, he still plans to bring down a budget before calling a general election.

"Between now and next spring we'll let our plans be known," he said. "We're planning as we're moving along."

Davis was just as vague when asked about major legislative moves for the fall sitting. Except for changes to the Liquor Control Act and leftover business from last spring, he had little to say about how he plans to make his own mark.

"We'll let you know," he said when asked for any specifics on how he'll improve public safety, a central leadership theme for the former police officer.

The Tories have a 29-seat majority government in the legislature. The Liberals have 14 members, the NDP have three and there are two vacant seats.

Liberal Leader Dwight Ball may have perceived momentum on his side, but he's also under increasing pressure to talk policy.

The party's election platform is well underway, he said. Highlights will include strategies drawn from consultations across the province on how to diversify a heavily oil-dependent economy.

Blidook said governing will be tough for whoever winds up in power if Brent crude doesn't rebound.

"If it turns out that oil prices are going to be around US$80 a barrel, Dwight Ball might not like being premier either."

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