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N.L. Liberal Leader Andrew Furey takes questions from the media following a televised debate at the Confederation Building, in St. John's, on Feb. 3, 2021.Paul Daly/The Canadian Press

The two main contenders for premier of Newfoundland and Labrador are at odds over who’s best suited to negotiate with the federal government for help with the province’s struggling finances.

The sparring erupted in a televised debate Wednesday night and spilled over into the next afternoon, as Liberal Leader and incumbent Premier Andrew unveiled his party’s platform ahead of the Feb. 13 election.

With a $16.4-billion net debt and the highest debt-to-GDP ratio in the country, some experts say the province won’t be able to brighten its fiscal future without significant help from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. And last March, former premier Dwight Ball wrote to Trudeau to say the province could no longer afford to run its services.

“I don’t subscribe to the view that it’s us versus them,” Furey told reporters when asked what kind of leverage the province would have in any negotiation with the federal government. “We’re Canadians living in Newfoundland and Labrador.”

Progressive Conservative Leader Ches Crosbie, by contrast, has pledged to “take a hard line” in negotiations with Ottawa, saying he would “sue for justice” if the federal government won’t revisit the formula for equalization payments. Equalization transfers compensate poorer provinces to ensure Canadians across the country have a relatively equal quality of services such as health care.

In a scrum following Wednesday night’s debate, Crosbie reminded reporters that Trudeau holds a minority government and may lose the next election to the Conservatives. With rumours circulating about an upcoming federal election, Crosbie said he may become better politically aligned than Furey to get the province a federal lift out of its “difficult circumstances.”

“We need a voice in Ottawa from the premier of this province,” Crosbie said. “Not someone who listens closely to the voice in Ottawa telling him what to do, which is what’s going on right now.” He said Furey’s relationship with Trudeau and the federal government is “a mutual back-scratching exercise” and a “Liberal fan club.”

Furey said he has already negotiated with Ottawa a deferral of $844 million in debt payments for the province’s troubled Muskrat Falls project, which he has called “an anchor around the collective souls” of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. The project’s costs have doubled to $13.1 billion since it was first sanctioned by the Tories in 2012, and electricity rates in the province could also double in order to pay for its bloated budget.

On Thursday, as he spoke to reporters in front of the Liberal campaign bus, Furey said the province will only have to pay half those deferred payments when they come due. “They need to see a plan,” he said of the federal government. “They need to see a solid strategy moving forward, one that creates a sustainable life here for people in the province. And I think we, as Liberals, have shown them that.”

With nine days to go until election day, the Liberals are the second party to release a campaign platform. The NDP released their platform hours before Wednesday night’s debate. A spokesman for the Progressive Conservatives said their platform will drop Friday.

The Liberal platform released Thursday includes promises to increase immigration and increase programs to support newcomers. The party is also pledging a renewed poverty-reduction strategy.

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