03/12/2014 12:37 EDT | Updated 05/12/2014 05:59 EDT

Newfoundland and Labrador government promises more openness, whistleblower law

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - Newfoundland and Labrador's Progressive Conservative government says it will make good on a six-year-old promise to protect whistleblowers and will yield to public demands for more openness.

The government opened a new legislative session Wednesday with an almost repentant throne speech that repeatedly vows to be more transparent.

"Our government has always strived to be open," the speech said. "However, the people of the province have expressed concerns that we are not open enough and we are listening."

The Tories first promised to bring in whistleblower legislation during the 2007 election campaign. That came months after a review of how the province's politicians spend public money recommended such a law.

The government is also promising an Open Government Initiative to post more information online, and a new protocol for additional oversight of Crown corporation Nalcor Energy. Nalcor is managing the $7.7-billion Muskrat Falls hydro project under construction in Labrador.

Premier Tom Marshall highlighted the new protocol in his response to the throne speech in the legislature.

"Government departments and agencies ought to disclose information as a routine way of doing business," said the speech delivered by Chief Justice Derek Green, who led the 2007 spending review.

The Tories have been dogged by perceptions of secrecy since they passed tighter restrictions on cabinet records and other documents in 2012.

One of Marshall's first acts after Kathy Dunderdale stepped down as premier in January was to announce an independent review of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act. Marshall has said he's hoping a three-member panel with expertise in governance, law and journalism will produce a report by the fall.

He had previously said any recommendations would be non-binding but changed tack Wednesday.

"The government commits to act on the advice it is given by amending the law as appropriate to make ours the most open jurisdiction in this country — if not in the world," he told the legislature.

"People are demanding more openness and that's what we're hearing," he said. "The government functions to serve the people. When the people demand greater openness, then greater openness is what this government is going to deliver."

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

She led the Tories to a third straight majority government in October 2011. But she stepped down after losing two government members who questioned her leadership, and after provincewide blackouts in early January infuriated residents.

The house of assembly reopened just before the Tories close nominations Friday for a leadership contest to be decided at a convention in July. Marshall has said he will not run.

Under provincial law, an election must be called within a year of the new Tory leader being sworn in as premier.

Green read the throne speech Wednesday as Lt.-Gov. Frank Fagan was away on personal business.

The 11-page document covered a range of familiar government goals from enhancing health care services and early childhood education to getting provincial spending in line with earnings.

The province faces a projected deficit of $451 million this year after recording a $195-million deficit last year. That's despite economic forecasts that lead the country and inspired Marshall as former finance minister to dub it a "golden age" of relative prosperity.

"We committed last year and in our 10-year sustainability plan to return to surplus in 2015-16, and we will maintain that commitment," said the throne speech.

"Over the longer term, we will work to reduce our expenses and reduce our net debt."

Opposition Liberal Leader Dwight Ball blasted the government's inability to better manage years of surpluses from offshore oil wealth.

"This government cannot undo the mess that has already been created," he said in a campaign-style response to the speech. "As a result, it will be our children and our children's children who will pay ... the price.

"Mr. Speaker, this government has no clear vision for the future of Newfoundland and Labrador."