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Newfoundland Throne Speech focuses on child care, human rights Add to ...

Children are its top priority, the government of Newfoundland and Labrador says in a Throne Speech that vows action where it has been accused of neglect.

The provincial legislature opened Monday with the 20-page blueprint of government promises and achievements read by Lieutenant-Governor John Crosbie.

It charts a progressive course for the Tory government of Premier Danny Williams, including an overhaul of the Child, Youth and Family Services Act, a new child care and early learning strategy, and a strengthened Human Rights Code.

"There is no gift more precious than a child, and no duty more important than advancing the best interests of our children through the choices we make," Mr. Crosbie read.

"In classrooms and homes across our province, a new attitude is taking hold, full of hope in the dream of a wonderful future for young people right here at home."

Opposition members stressed that the government, now facing a second consecutive multimillion-dollar deficit, failed to do more for its most vulnerable citizens when it was in the black.

NDP Leader Lorraine Michael asked whether the glitter and gloss of the feel-good speech will amount to more than empty words.

Action is urgently needed, she said.

"Government today announced a 10-year strategy for early learning and child care. I certainly hope it will not take 10 more years to implement, and that there will be substantial money upfront to address the urgent need for new spaces."

A report into child protection services last May painted "a troubling picture," Children and Youth Services Minister Joan Burke conceded at the time. It cited insufficient training and a lack of record-keeping.

Another report last June cited a "severe shortage" of social workers assigned to children under the government's care.

Ms. Michael said related government promises, along with plans to consult citizens on a second poverty reduction strategy, demand fast action.

In his speech, Mr. Williams vows continued shelter support for abused women, new programs for the disabled, a modernized labour code and ongoing efforts to restructure the troubled fishery and forestry sectors.

It highlights multibillion-dollar advancements in health care and infrastructure spending as the government capitalizes on mining and offshore oil developments.

But opposition members seized on what wasn't there: plans to extend home care or pharmacare for seniors, and to build more affordable housing.

Liberal Leader Yvonne Jones said too many people are being left behind.

"There are groups of people in this province who are falling through the cracks of our social system, experiencing hardship, poverty and homelessness. We hear from people who have nowhere to live - in this city and outside the city.

"If you do not battle to overcome poverty, social inequities and homelessness when revenues are in surplus, then it will certainly be a test to see what the priorities will be when faced with economic challenges and continued deficits."

Mr. Williams has already said he will deliver a second consecutive deficit rather than cuts to program spending when his government releases its budget next Monday.

The province had expected to run a $750-million deficit this year due to falling commodity prices, but the recent rise of oil prices could slash that amount.

The Throne Speech emphasized that the province has moved from having one of the highest poverty rates in Canada to one of the lowest.

But Ms. Jones countered with a recent study that suggests about 30,000 people still rely on food banks.

The new session in one of Canada's most lopsided legislatures will pit 43 Tories against five opposition members - four Liberals and one New Democrat.

It begins amid increasingly testy contract talks between the government and about 1,000 doctors across the province who've been without an agreement since October.

The Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association asked for binding arbitration on Friday, a request the government has rejected.

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