03/11/2014 03:49 EDT | Updated 05/11/2014 05:59 EDT

Newfoundland and Labrador's Tory government will chart course with throne speech

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - Newfoundland and Labrador's Progressive Conservative government will use a throne speech Wednesday to chart its course amid a leadership race before an election expected as early as this fall.

It's the first time the legislature has opened since the fall sitting and Kathy Dunderdale's sudden decision to quit as premier Jan. 24.

She led the Tories to a third straight majority government in October 2011 but stepped down after provincewide power failures in early January stoked public outrage. Dunderdale was already under increasing pressure after two members questioned her leadership as they left the government benches. Both now sit as Opposition Liberals.

The house of assembly resumes business just before the Tories close nominations Friday for a leadership contest to be decided at a convention July 4-5.

Former finance minister Tom Marshall, who took over as premier, has said he will not run for the top job. And he has moved decisively since Dunderdale resigned to win back ground with voters that eroded under her watch.

Marshall declared when he was sworn in the same day Dunderdale quit that his government will listen to concerns, particularly around perceived secrecy. He started by announcing a three-member panel of independent experts to review legislated restrictions to government information passed in 2012. Those changes have been a heavy hammer for opposition critics.

Marshall has said he'd like to see the panel's non-binding report by this fall.

Stephen Tomblin, a political scientist at Memorial University of Newfoundland, said a throne speech is the government's bid to start fresh and restore confidence.

"I think there's a huge problem in terms of trust," he said. "There was always a sense that they were hiding something or they're not willing to openly discuss issues or problems.

"The opposition is going to be doing what they can in order to keep the government off balance and present this message that they're untrustworthy or they're not capable of managing the ship."

The throne speech is also the lead-up to a budget this spring that Marshall has already said will be in the red.

Offshore oil wealth and major construction projects have powered a historic economic boom but the province ran a deficit of $195 million for the last fiscal year, with a deficit of $451 million forecast for this year.

Provincial net debt increased by $511 million to $8.3 billion last year. The provincial auditor general has repeatedly warned of overspending, potential cost overruns for the $7.7-billion Muskrat Falls hydro project under construction in Labrador, and hefty unfunded public pension liabilities.

Last spring's cost-cutting budget was a lightning rod for criticism as it slashed 1,200 public sector jobs.

Liberal Leader Dwight Ball said he'll focus on fiscal issues, a range of social matters including services for troubled teens, and ongoing electricity problems.

Newfoundland residents were asked again last week to conserve power as peak demands during a three-day cold snap pushed the island's generation capacity almost to the limit.

"We're going to be ready for the fall of 2014," Ball said of the potential for an early election.

Under provincial law, Dunderdale's resignation triggers a vote within a year of the new full-time Tory leader being sworn in as premier. The next fixed-date election had been scheduled for October 2015.

There are now 33 Progressive Conservatives compared to 11 Liberals and three NDP members. There is one vacancy to be filled in a byelection for Dunderdale's district of Virginia Waters that has yet to be called.