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The Globe and Mail

Why N.L.'s premier is battling the Liberals, the NDP and Danny Williams

Despite the latest perceived snipe from her ex-boss, Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale is serene about her attempt to lead the Progressive Conservatives to a third majority government.

The hand-picked successor to Danny Williams is expected to officially hit the campaign trail Monday for a provincial fixed-date vote on Oct. 11.

"We've never been in a better place in our history," she said of the province's vault toward prosperity on offshore oil and mineral earnings. "Things have never been better in the party."

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Ms. Dunderdale said she has an eight-year plan that, if her party wins two more terms, would see her watch over a $6.2-billion hydroelectric project in Labrador.

"I think things are going extremely well," she said in an interview. "And, you know, if Mr. Williams has issues, they're his issues. They're not mine."

Ms. Dunderdale, 58, declined to speak about the most recent indication that all is not well between her and Williams, a one-of-a-kind force of leadership who scaled daunting heights of popularity before suddenly retiring from politics last December.

In defending his contentious attempt to name Elizabeth Matthews, his former communications director, to the board that regulates offshore oil activity, Mr. Williams last week described Ms. Matthews as the most competent woman he ever met in public life.

"Danny never at any time questioned Dunderdale's competence," Ms. Matthews stressed in an e-mail.

But it's not the first time Mr. Williams appeared to undermine Ms. Dunderdale, who supported his nemesis Prime Minister Stephen Harper during the federal election.

Mr. Williams publicly blasted the provincial government in May for being, as he put it, too hasty to reject his bid for public financial backing for the American Hockey League he brought back to St. John's.

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And in late March, he blamed bad timing for his decision to skip a Tory tribute dinner in his honour. The event was to coincide with a convention to anoint Ms. Dunderdale as party leader.

When asked at the time about the apparent rift, Mr. Williams cryptically referred to a "distancing" of the new administration from him.

Ms. Dunderdale's approval ratings have subsequently dropped, some polls have suggested. But hers and the party's numbers still place the Tories well within majority government territory as the Liberals and NDP lag far behind.

Heading into the campaign, the Conservatives have 43 of 48 seats compared to four Liberals and one New Democrat.

Ms. Dunderdale put her mark on her first budget last April with a $7.3-billion big-spending fiscal blueprint. It included cash to create child-care spaces and bolster programs and services for seniors and people living with disabilities.

Critics chided the government for not doing more to pay off the net debt, which was forecast to grow by almost $460 million to about $8.7 billion.

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This, while Finance Minister Tom Marshall forecasted a slip into the red with deficits of $496 million and $309 million predicted in 2012-13 and 2013-14, respectively, as yearly payments from the 1985 Atlantic Accord run out.

Mr. Marshall has since said higher than expected oil production will help whittle the debt this year. But business leaders say offshore black gold is a finite resource and that the government should rein in spending.

While provincial unemployment had dropped slightly, it is still the highest in the country at 13.7 per cent.

Liberal Leader Kevin Aylward, a 51-year-old former provincial cabinet minister who took the party helm just last month as Yvonne Jones recovers from breast cancer, says overspending is not the only Tory weak spot.

The oil wealth that has created chic restaurants and monster homes in and around St. John's has not reached rural areas, he said in an interview.

Communities that rely on forestry and the struggling fishery have no voice, Mr. Aylward said.

"They feel a total sense that they've been abandoned.

"Especially in the rural areas of the province, there is an interest in having an alternative."

Mr. Aylward says despite a party debt of about $600,000, the Liberals have enough business and individual support to fight a credible campaign without adding new debt.

Called "The People's Platform," the Liberal appeal to voters will include $250 million over 10 years to retire fishing licences and revamp the fishery, along with "a major rural revitalization program," Mr. Aylward said.

He is confident the Liberals can make gains in ridings where close wins for the Tories had to do with the so-called Danny Williams coat-tails effect.

Mr. Aylward and NDP Leader Lorraine Michael, 68, the sole New Democrat in the lopsided legislature, both say they'd halt spending on the $6.2-billion Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project while other options are independently assessed.

They say the government and its Crown-owned utility Nalcor have not proven the need or viability of a dam and generating station that would destroy vast swaths of Labrador fish and caribou habitat.

A joint federal-provincial environmental review panel last month reached the same conclusion. It called on the government to further discuss alternatives.

But a report for Nalcor by global energy analyst Navigant Consulting, released Thursday, says Muskrat Falls is the cheapest option to meet the province's long-term power needs.

Ms. Michael says her candidates aren't hearing a lot about Muskrat Falls on doorsteps. Prime concerns are child care, affordable housing and care for seniors, she said in an interview.

Her party, hoping to sway voters inspired by deceased federal NDP leader Jack Layton's sweep to Official Opposition in May, will appeal directly to those issues.

"The bottom line is, we have wealth in this province but the wealth is not being shared.

"People outside the northeast Avalon (which includes the capital St. John's) are saying very clearly: 'We're not benefiting. Our children are still leaving our communities. We still have children who can't afford to go to university."'

Ms. Dunderdale counters that the Tory government has fruitlessly tried since 2003 to get all players in the fishery — including Ottawa — to sit down and craft solutions. The problem is as simple as it is heartbreaking, she said. There are too few fish for too many licences and plants which, if bought out or shut down, could diminish or destroy what's left of beloved outports.

"It's not going to be easy and we're going to need a lot of help," Ms. Dunderdale said. "The federal government has to come onside, for example, on an early retirement program.

"Well, if you think standing down on the waterfront and lobbing rocks up at the minister of Fisheries or the PMO (Prime Minister's Office) is going to get you that ... you know, that's not a good approach."

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