QUESTION PERIOD: March 12, 2012

MR. SPEAKER: The Leader of the Third Party.

MS MICHAEL: Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker, it is very disturbing to hear the Premier talk about cuts to government spending and its implications for loss of positions in government departments. I understand that in November, CUPE asked government for a media blackout on all issues pertaining to public sector negotiations.

Mr. Speaker, I ask the Premier: Why is she persisting in publicly raising issues which would normally be left for the negotiating table?

SOME HON. MEMBERS: Hear, hear!

MR. SPEAKER: The hon. the Premier.

SOME HON. MEMBERS: Hear, hear!

PREMIER DUNDERDALE: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker, the review that we are doing within government right now has nothing to do with negotiations. Mr. Speaker, we are called upon by virtue of being the government of Newfoundland and Labrador to be stewards, to be good fiscal managers. We always have to be looking at how we are going to spend the people’s money.

Mr. Speaker, in her own platform, she was going to do a reduction of 1 per cent, that is $80 million. What were you going to cut, if you were not going to cut programs, if you were not going to be creative in ensuring that money was being spent in the most positive way?

Mr. Speaker, we have clearly outlined that permanent employees are not going to be affected. Mr. Speaker, we ring fence certain important services that are provided to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador. The rest, Mr. Speaker, is very fluid because we have to look before we decide what we are going to do.

SOME HON. MEMBERS: Hear, hear!

MR. SPEAKER: The hon. the Leader of the Official Third Party.

SOME HON. MEMBERS: Hear, hear!

MS MICHAEL: Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker.

The Premier might say what she wants about saying that she is not talking about the loss of jobs, but that is the message that is coming across. That is certainly what was expressed today by one of the major public sector unions in this Province, Mr. Speaker -

SOME HON. MEMBERS: Oh, oh!

MR. SPEAKER: Order, please!

MS MICHAEL: - when they came out and talked about the fear that is in their workers right now.

I am saying to the Premier, Mr. Speaker, I am asking her: Is she deliberately trying to undermine the negotiations between government and the public service sector unions because that is what is going on?

SOME HON. MEMBERS: Hear, hear!

MR. SPEAKER: The hon. the Premier.

SOME HON. MEMBERS: Hear, hear!

PREMIER DUNDERDALE: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

This, from the Leader of the Third Party who was going to reduce the Budget by $80 million; this from the Leader of the Third Party who wants to do a health review. What do we get, and what have we had in every health review that we have ever had done in this Province but only cut, slash, close clinics, close hospitals, close beds. That is what reviews do, Mr. Speaker, that is what they recommend. Yet we hear her ask for them every day – every day.

Mr. Speaker, I am going to be straightforward with the people of the Province, including the people who work in governance. We are having a review, we are trying to reduce spending, and we are going to protect jobs as best we can, Mr. Speaker, but we have to provide efficient, effective service for the people of Newfoundland and Labrador. That is our first priority.

SOME HON. MEMBERS: Hear, hear!

MR. SPEAKER: The hon. the Leader of the Third Party.

SOME HON. MEMBERS: Hear, hear!

MS MICHAEL: Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker.

I just recommend to the Premier that she keep her comments for the negotiating table. Mr. Speaker, in her response to the Speech from the Throne, the Premier indicated the Budget would be brought down in March. This weekend the Premier said, through the media, that the Budget would be brought down in April, possibly late April.

Mr. Speaker, I ask the Premier what happened during the five days between the Throne Speech and to the taping of her interview to delay the Budget almost a month?

SOME HON. MEMBERS: Hear, hear!

MR. SPEAKER: The hon. the Premier.

SOME HON. MEMBERS: Hear, hear!

PREMIER DUNDERDALE: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

I remind the Leader of the Third Party that there is a significant exercise that goes on in government once the Budget is brought down, Mr. Speaker, and it is called Estimates. I know you are going to get up and say yes, you know everything there is to know about Estimates. Well we want to make sure that she knows everything that we can possibly put in there about Estimates, so we are moving along in this exercise, Mr. Speaker, and we want to ensure that in terms of any change in services that we provide, or any reduction in government’s budget is reflected in the Estimates Book so that we can have a full discussion and they have an opportunity to question us on this when we go through Estimates after the Budget is brought down, Mr. Speaker.

SOME HON. MEMBERS: Hear, hear!

MR. SPEAKER: The hon. the Leader of the Third Party.

SOME HON. MEMBERS: Hear, hear!

MS MICHAEL: Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker.

I have one thing to say to the Premier before my next question: you have had five months; what has this government been doing in the past five months?

Mr. Speaker, when questioned about the creation of an independent offshore safety authority as recommended by Justice Robert Wells, last week Harper’s federal Natural Resources Minister mentioned possibly creating a separate division of safety within the C-NLOPB instead. Mr. Speaker, Justice Wells was clear in his recommendations; he preferred the creation of an independent offshore safety authority. So I ask the Premier: Will she give this House and the people of the Province her assurances that she will insist to her federal counterparts that they create the independent authority outside of the C-NLOPB?

SOME HON. MEMBERS: Hear, hear!

MR. SPEAKER: The hon. the Premier.

SOME HON. MEMBERS: Hear, hear!

PREMIER DUNDERDALE: Mr. Speaker, I respectfully suggest to the Leader of the Third Party that she focus those remarks at Mr. Harris, the NDP MP, and Mr. Cleary, the two NDP MPs who are in Ottawa to lobby and focus on issues of importance like this very important one. They are there to make the arguments to Ottawa on behalf of the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador.

On behalf of the people of Newfoundland and Labrador, in my role as Premier, Mr. Speaker, I will stand up, will defend and will advocate for the positions that we have put forward here that we have signed on to, such as the establishment of an independent regulator.

SOME HON. MEMBERS: Hear, hear!

MR. SPEAKER: The hon. the Member for St. John’s East.

SOME HON. MEMBERS: Hear, hear!

MR. MURPHY: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

My question is directly to the Minister of Municipal Affairs. Municipalities are facing an everyday challenge in finding funds for basic services like water and sewer. As late as today, Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador has asked for a new fiscal arrangement between municipalities and the Province to help meet that direct need.

Mr. Speaker, I ask the minister: Can he confirm that municipalities will not see a new fiscal arrangement in this year’s Budget, as the media has been reporting?

SOME HON. MEMBERS: Hear, hear!

MR. SPEAKER: The hon. the Minister of Municipal Affairs.

SOME HON. MEMBERS: Hear, hear!

MR. O’BRIEN: Yes, Mr. Speaker, what I have committed to is to work with Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador and municipalities in general in regard to meeting their needs. To build on what the Premier was saying in reference to a question on the other side of the House in regard to the fiscal arrangement that was instituted back in the 1990s, that was a system that was unaffordable, unsustainable; unaffordable to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador and the government. When we go down that path we will have something that is affordable and sustainable to the people and the government of the Province.

SOME HON. MEMBERS: Hear, hear!

MR. SPEAKER: The hon. the Member for St. John’s East.

MR. MURPHY: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

I would suggest to the minister and the hon. members on the other side that the gas tax is a great sustainable way of supporting municipalities. I suggest to them to look at it in that regard.

Mr. Speaker, municipalities are in urgent need of a new fiscal arrangement now to meet the service needs of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.

Mr. Speaker, I will ask the minister: Why did his government decide not to enter into a new fiscal arrangement with the municipalities this year knowing that for the last five months we have been waiting for the government to act here in House to find us some answers to these questions?

MR. SPEAKER: The hon. the Minister of Municipal Affairs.

SOME HON. MEMBERS: Hear, hear!

MR. O’BRIEN: Mr. Speaker, I know the hon. member is a new member in this House and he should probably do a little bit of research in regard to the significant investment that this government has made for municipalities in Newfoundland and Labrador the last five years.

SOME HON. MEMBERS: Hear, hear!

MR. O’BRIEN: Hundreds and hundreds of millions are being invested in municipal works projects right across this Province, in the City of St. John’s, up on the Northern Peninsula, in Labrador and everywhere, all over this Province. That is the way we support municipalities.

As I said in my last answer, when we enter into a consultation process, whatever comes out of that will be affordable and will be sustainable to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador.

SOME HON. MEMBERS: Hear, hear!

MR. SPEAKER: The hon. the Member for St. John’s East.

SOME HON. MEMBERS: Hear, hear!

MR. MURPHY: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker, the government is rushing ahead with plans for Muskrat Falls power, and municipalities will be expected to pay higher electricity rates in the coming years. I certainly hope that municipalities will get some extra funding to cover those electricity costs. Mr. Speaker, I have been talking to mayors and councillors across the Province who tell me that they do not know if they can keep the lights on in their hockey arenas.

Mr. Speaker, I ask the minister, how does this department plan to address municipal funding needs so that they can cover rising electricity costs in the future?

SOME HON. MEMBERS: Hear, hear!

MR. SPEAKER: The hon. the Minister of Natural Resources.

SOME HON. MEMBERS: Hear, hear!

MR. KENNEDY: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

One of the reasons that the cost of electricity is going up so much in this Province is the price of oil. Holyrood, at its peak, burns 18,000 barrels of oil a day. Oil prices will continue to rise, Mr. Speaker, we are told by the experts. The cheapest way to deliver power to this Province, and to ensure that electricity rates stay down, is through Muskrat Falls. What Muskrat Falls will do, Mr. Speaker, is it will provide cheaper and more stable electricity rates. So, in fact, the municipal leaders in the Province should be very thankful that we are bringing Muskrat Falls on-stream, if we sanction it. Also, Mr. Speaker, there are significant economic and environmental benefits – 2,700 jobs at peak employment, Mr. Speaker, with first jobs going to people from Labrador.

SOME HON. MEMBERS: Hear, hear!

MR. SPEAKER: The hon. the Member for St. John’s East.

SOME HON. MEMBERS: Hear, hear!

MR. MURPHY: Mr. Speaker, the minister got up and just talked about oil prices. So I will ask him this question, and I will also forward it to the Minister of Municipal Affairs as well. We know that oil prices are rising, so of course, along comes with rising fuel costs, for example to keep some diesel motors and dump trucks and everything.

I would like to know what the government over here is going to be doing as regard to addressing the inequities that we are going to find in municipal budgets when it comes to fuel costs?

SOME HON. MEMBERS: Hear, hear!

MR. SPEAKER: The hon. the Minister of Municipal Affairs.

SOME HON. MEMBERS: Hear, hear!

MR. O’BRIEN: I would like to remind again the hon. member – I know he is new in the House, and he needs to do a little bit of research. As the Premier referenced in her answer, we invested $4.6 million extra into municipalities last year, in Municipal Operating Grants, to address those very issues. Also, it is incumbent on municipalities to have the right taxation base in place to support their operations as well. So, this is not just about a one way street here, this is a two way street, a partnership in regard to supporting all municipalities in Newfoundland and Labrador. That is the way it works.

SOME HON. MEMBERS: Hear, hear!

MR. SPEAKER: The Leader of the Third Party.

MS MICHAEL: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker, the only external independent expert panel to look at the Muskrat Falls proposal says government must work with the Town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Nalcor, and other relevant agencies to develop a low income housing strategy with measurable targets to deal with the anticipated in-migration of the workforce necessary to complete the project.

Mr. Speaker, I ask the minister, what is her government doing with regard to starting to get plans in place around the recommendation that has been made by the environmental assessment panel?

MR. SPEAKER: Time for a very brief answer.

The hon. the Minister of Transportation and Works.

MR. HEDDERSON: Moving forward with any partner, whether it be Happy Valley-Goose Bay, whether it be any community in Newfoundland and Labrador, to make sure that with megaprojects or any projects that we are doing the right thing with regard to housing in Newfoundland and Labrador. That is a commitment of this government and we will continue with that commitment.

SOME HON. MEMBERS: Hear, hear!

MR. SPEAKER: The time allocated for Question Period has expired.

Associated Caucus Members: 

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