POLITICS

Throne speech charts election path for Tories in Newfoundland and Labrador

04/21/2015 09:55 EDT | Updated 07/13/2015 11:59 EDT
ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - Premier Paul Davis tried hitting the reset button Tuesday with an election year throne speech focused on easing oil reliance in Newfoundland and Labrador as it faces years of red-ink budgets.

Critics and even some supporters dismissed it as political window dressing about six months before the governing Progressive Conservatives are expected to hit the campaign trail. They have held majority power since 2003 but have lost seven straight byelections.

"The throne speech is a cosmetic opportunity for them," said Tim Powers, vice-chairman of Ottawa-based Summa Strategies and a former Conservative adviser.

"But they don't need cosmetic surgery. They need full-body surgery, and no one speech is going to change the course for them."

Lt.-Gov. Frank Fagan read the 19-page text that touted as many purported Progressive Conservative government achievements as it did action plans.

The speech touched on everything from the release of a long awaited population growth strategy to a sweeping Kindergarten to Grade 12 curricula review, improved apprenticeships for skilled trades and promised legislation to better prevent oil spills.

"There are many other things the government might have chosen to do this year if it were not faced with the unprecedented and unanticipated drop in revenue caused by the precipitous drop in the price of oil," the speech says. "But responsible governance demands fiscal prudence."

It has been a rough seven months since Davis won the Tory leadership and was sworn in last September.

The collapse of oil prices since June has the province forecasting a $916-million deficit for this fiscal year ahead of a budget scheduled for later this month. The speech reiterates Finance Minister Ross Wiseman's promise to present a budget plan that will balance the books by 2020-21.

Davis under provincial law was to call an election within a year of his swearing-in as premier. The campaign will be slightly delayed, however, by the government's push — with Liberal support — to cut eight seats from the 48-seat legislature to save money.

Liberal Opposition Leader Dwight Ball said Tuesday the "tired" Tory government's legacy is fiscal mismanagement. He accused Davis and other Progressive Conservative leaders before him since 2003 of recklessly blowing through the greatest wealth the province has ever seen.

"They overspent," he said in the legislature. "They didn't plan for the rainy day, and now Newfoundlanders and Labradorians and future generations must carry the weight of that burden on their shoulders."

NDP Leader Earle McCurdy, who took the helm in March and does not hold elected office, echoed that refrain.

"The government acted as though the good times would never end," he said outside the legislature.

Davis said his critics ignore unprecedented capital investment in the province, improved schools, roads, health services and social programs.

"We have made better gains on poverty in Newfoundland and Labrador than any jurisdiction in Canada can say."

His government is also moving to undo much maligned access-to-information restrictions with new legislation that will make it a leader for openness, Davis said.

"Tell me what investments we should not have made in infrastructure," he challenged Ball in the legislature.

"We're not done yet. We have more work to do."

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