Election platforms in Newfoundland and Labrador are dangling promises on everything from highway moose control to all-day kindergarten as the Liberals and NDP fight to weaken Tory dominance in the legislature.
First out of the policy gate were the New Democrats who, with just one member compared to 43 Progressive Conservatives and four Liberals, are going for what they describe as a “historic breakthrough” in the vote Oct. 11.
NDP Leader Lorraine Michael released the “It’s Time” platform aimed at voters who have tired of the traditional Liberal-Tory political tug-of-war. The $142-million package is heavy on social measures such as publicly funded homecare, plans for all-day kindergarten and universal public child care, along with rent supplements and commitments for more affordable housing.
Ms. Michael is hoping that the late Jack Layton’s sweep to Official Opposition in Ottawa, along with her share-the-wealth message, will help the NDP break its record of two provincial seats and challenge the Liberals in what polls have suggested could be a race for second place.
Both the NDP and Liberal leaders are appealing to voters in fishing outports and paper mill towns, where offshore oil wealth is not nearly so evident as in St. John’s.
New Democrats say they would also review the health care system and increase incentives for doctors to go to rural regions.
The platform attempts to head off any criticism of lefty tax-and-spend tendencies.
“Our first priority is to balance the province’s budget in each year of the next government’s term,” it says. The NDP would pay for its platform by introducing a 3-per-cent surtax on offshore oil royalties and shifting 1 per cent of the provincial budget through “efficiencies and reassignments.”
“Four more years of the same tired status quo is not what the people of this province need,” says the document.
The Tories were next to release their platform, “New Energy.” It’s a $135-million array of tax breaks and targeted promises after the governing Conservatives were criticized last spring for a record big-spending $7.3-billion budget under which net debt would slightly grow to about $8.7- billion.
Business leaders and economists have called for fiscal restraint in a province that is precariously dependent on offshore oil production and commodity prices. They note that Finance Minister Tom Marshall forecast deficits of $496-million and $309-million in 2012-13 and 2013-14, respectively, as yearly payments from the 1985 Atlantic Accord run out.
The $6.2-billion Muskrat Falls hydroelectric megaproject in Labrador could add another $3- billion in debt or more. Both the NDP and the Liberals have said they would halt related spending while provincial power needs and options are independently assessed.
“We will ensure annual provincial expenditures do not grow beyond the level our economy can sustain,” Tory Leader Kathy Dunderdale told reporters Thursday as the party platform was released. Her government has brought in tax cuts totalling about $1.6-billion since 2007.
Dubbed the Blue Book, the latest Tory blueprint promises a review to ensure competitive income tax rates, gradual cuts to payroll taxes, a freeze on post-secondary tuition fees and the replacement over four years of provincial student loans with needs-based grants. There is little focus on child care, beyond already existing tax credits and baby bonuses, along with a pilot project for regulated home-based child care grants announced in the last provincial budget.
On debt reduction, the Tories say they’ll take one-third of any future surplus and invest it in unfunded public pension plans and other post-retirement liabilities. The platform says net debt dropped to about $8.2-billion from a high of almost $12-billion since the Progressive Conservatives took power in 2003.
Offshore oil wealth catapulted the province to “have” status and now accounts for about one-third of provincial revenues. But it’s a finite resource.
Debt reduction should be a top priority while offshore oil is lucrative, said Bradley George, director of provincial affairs for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
The “People’s Platform,” released Friday by the Liberal Party, promises to invest 10 per cent of oil revenues – about $250-million a year – in a legacy fund.
“As a province we need to leverage our energy resources for future as well as present generations,” says the package of proposals worth about $145.4-million.
The platform also includes a 10-year, $250-million fisheries investment and diversification fund. It promises a “bold new vision for the fishing industry and rural Newfoundland and Labrador.”
But some of its measures, including a fisheries loan board and a pledge to increase cod catch quotas (pending a species review), have been assailed by critics as recycled or unrealistic ideas that have failed before.
Liberal Leader Kevin Aylward also raised some eyebrows last week when he said “a new Liberal government will instruct the Department of Justice to negotiate settlements relating to the moose vehicle class action.”
The landmark legal action alleges the province has negligently failed to manage a moose population that is blamed for around 800 vehicle crashes or near misses a year – including two fatalities, on average. The lawsuit calls for compensation, moose fencing, a cull of the herd and other measures.
The Liberals promise to put up highway fencing along “hot spots” where moose wander on to roadways.
The Tories, while in power, launched a $5-million pilot project for a small stretch of moose fencing along the Trans-Canada Highway, a flashing-light detector system to warn drivers of moose near the roadway, and expanded brush cutting.
The Liberals will help fund their promises by finding efficiencies in government spending, Mr. Aylward told reporters Friday.
He says about $250-million can be saved just by cutting cash now being spent on the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project.
Christopher Dunn, a political scientist at Memorial University in St. John’s, says the campaign is shaping up to be more interesting than the last two elections where popular former premier Danny Williams was seen as the obvious winner.
“There’s a real battle of ideas. There’s a choice,” he said in an interview.
Prof. Dunn does not doubt that the Tories are positioned to win, but it’s a question of how many seats they will retain.
“One of the real stories is who’s going to be the Opposition,” he said. “I sense there’s a hunger in the province for a viable Opposition.”
Prof. Dunn said the New Democrats have assembled a credible range of candidates at a time when voting NDP is increasingly considered an option. The Liberals, meanwhile, are offering up ideas that risk being seen as “retro,” he said.
“The vibe I get from them is they want to resurrect industries that have failed in the past.”