Wil­liams touts eco­nomic plan; says good year marred by crash

The Southern Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - BY DAVE BARTLETT

Though the clouds of re­ces­sion fore­casted a dif­fi­cult year at the beginning of 2009, Premier Danny Wil­liams said an­other event marred the year and su­per­seded most ev­ery­thing else.

In March, a Cougar He­li­copter crashed on its way to de­liver work­ers to the prov­ince’s off­shore op­er­a­tions, killing 17 peo­ple.

“I think that shocked ev­ery­body at the time, I think we’re all still feel­ing it.”

Mr. Wil­liams, in a year-end in­ter­view with the Tele­gram, said he’s hop­ing the on­go­ing Wells’ in­quiry will con­clude in the com­ing year with some an­swers for the fam­i­lies of the peo­ple who died, and will lead to safety im­prove­ments.

He said the ac­ci­dent also raised the is­sue of im­proved search and res­cue ser­vices for the off­shore.

Mr. Wil­liams sug­gested ev­ery year the prov­ince has some sort of marine dis­as­ter, and the loss of life ei­ther in the fish­ery or the off­shore is al­ways some­thing, which af­fects the pop­u­la­tion as a whole.

“ The loss of lives (at sea), I think, hits ev­ery­body in the heart.”

ECO­NOMIC DOWN­TURN

While the hearts of peo­ple were heavy with emo­tion in 2009, gov­ern­ment cof­fers were some­what lighter.

But over­all, Mr. Wil­liams said the prov­ince was able to weather the eco­nomic storm as well, or bet­ter, than other prov­inces.

“Even though our min­ing, and our newsprint, and our fish­ing and our oil pro­duc­tion were all down, our econ­omy still chugged along very, very well.”

The premier said New­found­land and Labrador has the high­est con­sumer op­ti­mism in the coun­try and most lo­cal busi­nesses are do­ing well.

The gov­ern­ment also stepped up with an $800-mil­lion eco­nomic stim­u­lus pack­age to build and up­grade roads, schools, hos­pi­tals and other in­fra­struc­ture, while cre­at­ing jobs.

The premier in­di­cated other gov­ern­ments did the same, but this prov­ince was some­what more pre­pared be­cause of the di­rec­tion his gov­ern­ment has been tak­ing over the last few years.

“ We were in good shape, and I’m re­ally very proud of the way we, as a gov­ern­ment and as a peo­ple, came through this past year and were con­sid­ered leaders in the coun­try.”

While New­found­land and Labrador is still pro­ject­ing a $443-mil­lion deficit this year, it’s 40 per cent less than bud­get pro­jec­tions.

Mr. Wil­liams said “Hope­fully … be­fore the end of the ( fis­cal) year, we might be able to whit­tle that deficit down a lit­tle more.”

“The big­gest prob­lem in the fish­ing in­dus­try is they (stake­hold­ers) need to get it to­gether.”

– Premier Danny Wil­liams

POS­I­TIVE IN­DI­CA­TORS

He said there was lots of good news for the prov­ince this past year, as well.

The gov­ern­ment’s poverty re­duc­tion strat­egy is na­tion­ally rec­og­nized, it launched its youth re­ten­tion strat­egy, and in-mi­gra­tion num­bers con­tin­ued to in­crease.

The prov­ince rene­go­ti­ated its agree­ment with Vale Inco, ne­go­ti­ated the Hiber­nia South ex­pan­sion, helped with sev­er­ance for AbitibiBow­a­ter work­ers, and be­gan to wheel power through Que­bec and down to New York State, which Mr. Wil­liams called a huge mile­stone.

“Our tourism num­bers are up in a bad eco­nomic year, which is un­be­liev­able, but it says we are do­ing some­thing right there.

“I couldn’t ask for much more, aside from the Lower Churchill,” he said with a laugh.

LOWER CHURCHILL

The pro­posed Lower Churchill hy­dro­elec­tric de­vel­op­ment did hit a num­ber of snags this year, but Mr. Wil­liams said he al­ways knew it would be a chal­leng­ing project to pull off.

He said there are still en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues, abo­rig­i­nal rights and fi­nanc­ing hur­dles.

“(The prov­ince is) do­ing so well on the fi­nan­cial side that we’re go­ing to be ac­tu­ally in a fi­nan­cial po­si­tion for the first time ever in our his­tory to be able to fund the Lower Churchill … our­selves.”

But he also said it would be nice for Ottawa to help fund the project, and other trans­mis­sion part­ners will likely have to come on side, too.

Mr. Wil­liams said the big­gest chal­lenge the project faces is deal­ing with Que­bec, which shouldn’t be the case.

“Hy­dro-Que­bec have skinned us big time on the Up­per Churchill. The least they could do as a neigh­bour, as fel­low Cana­di­ans, would be al­low us to just go on with our project.”

But, Mr. Wil­liams con­tended the util­ity has “ blocked us at ev­ery step.”

The lat­est road­block is the pro­posed deal, which will see Hy­dro-Que­bec buy NB Power as­sets from New Brunswick.

Be­sides that, Mr. Wil­liams said the prov­ince has been wait­ing for four years for hear­ings be­fore the Régie de l’en­ergie – Que­bec’s equiv­a­lent to this prov­ince’s Pub­lic Util­i­ties Board (PUB). Those hear­ings are now sched­uled for Jan­uary.

The PUB hear­ings on wa­ter shar­ing rights on the Churchill River will also hap­pen early in the new year.

Mr. Wil­liams vows to keep work­ing on the Lower Churchill project through 2010.

CAB­I­NET CHANGES

HEALTH CARE

FISH­ERY

“ We’ve just fi­nally said enough is enough, we’ve had it, so now it’s go­ing to be a full court press. If it doesn’t hap­pen, it won’t be for a lack of try­ing.”

The premier also said he’s been bring­ing the mes­sage of clean, green Churchill power to peo­ple from Cal­gary to New York City.

There were four cab­i­net shuf­fles in 2009.

Mr. Wil­liams said change can be both good and bad. While fresh faces bring new ideas, when vet­eran min­is­ters leave, they take their ex­pe­ri­ence with them.

For­mer trans­porta­tion min­is­ter Trevor Tay­lor re­signed in Septem­ber, and for­mer health min­is­ter Paul Oram quit pol­i­tics a month later.

The premier said he was sur­prised when Mr. Tay­lor an­nounced he was leav­ing pol­i­tics, but he said peo­ple’s lives evolve. “I re­spect that.” Mr. Wil­liams also noted pub­lic life is re­ward­ing, but of­ten not easy.

“It’s an emo­tional roller-coaster, quite frankly.”

Mr. Oram’s re­place­ment in health, Jerome Kennedy, was put in the port­fo­lio just be­fore the sec­ond wave of the H1N1 pan­demic hit the prov­ince.

Mr. Wil­liams cred­ited Mr. Kennedy for do­ing an ex­cep­tional job manag­ing the pan­demic, which even earned him ku­dos from both Op­po­si­tion par­ties in the House this fall.

But Mr. Wil­liams said calls by the Op­po­si­tion par­ties for a full re­view of the health care sys­tem are un­nec­es­sary.

“I’m firmly of the opin­ion that you can’t turn health care up­side down.”

Mr. Wil­liams said the Depart­ment of Health is not like other de­part­ments, be­cause of its com­plex­ity, the nu­mer­ous dif­fer­ent groups of pro­fes­sion­als, and its costly as­sets.

“Our ap­proach has been more of a tar­geted ap­proach.”

The premier said the gov­ern­ment will con­tinue to iden­tify prob­lems and tackle those one by one.

He said Mr. Kennedy brings pas­sion, a solid work ethic and a fi­nan­cial back­ground as for­mer fi­nance min­is­ter to the port­fo­lio and will be re­spon­si­ble for the “re­bal­anc­ing” of health care.

He also said there are lots of good sto­ries in health care in the prov­ince, which of­ten aren’t told.

“ It’s only when peo­ple are ag­grieved do they usu­ally go pub­lic.”

The premier also com­mended all the prov­ince’s health care pro­fes­sion­als for they way the H1N1 was han­dled.

An­other change in cab­i­net saw Clyde Jack­man take over the Depart­ment of Fisheries and Aqua­cul­ture. Mr. Wil­liams said Mr. Jack­man grew up around the fish­ery.

He said manag­ing the fish­ery is al­ways a chal­lenge, es­pe­cially with the cur­rent high Cana­dian dol­lar.

The premier said a pro­vin­cial mar­ket­ing strat­egy is a goal, and said it was un­for­tu­nate the prov­ince wasn’t able to buy Fish­ery Prod­ucts In­ter­na­tional’s mar­ket­ing divi­sion a few years ago.

But he said the big­gest fac­tor in the fish­ery is get­ting all the stake­hold­ers to agree.

“The big­gest prob­lem in the fish­ing in­dus­try is they (stake­hold­ers) need to get it to­gether.”

Mr. Wil­liams said the Fish, Food and Al­lied Work­ers union, har­vesters, pro­ces­sors and gov­ern­ment all have to reach a con­sen­sus.

“(They) need to seek a com­mon goal and re­al­ize there needs to be give and take on the way for­ward.”

One thing he would like to do for the fish­ery is es­tab­lish a pro­vin­cial re­search ves­sel.

When it comes to fish li­cence buy­backs and re­tire­ment pack­ages, Mr. Wil­liams re­it­er­ated the prov­ince is pre­pared to pay its share, but Ottawa still has to come on­side with that and many other fisheries is­sues.

“I’ve got to say, ( fed­eral Fisheries Min­is­ter) Gail Shea has been a huge dis­ap­point­ment from my per­spec­tive.”

FED­ERAL RE­LA­TION­SHIP

But Mr. Wil­liams con­tended his re­la­tion­ship with Prime Min­is­ter Stephen Harper has im­proved some­what.

The leaders met in Cupids dur­ing the royal visit in Novem­ber. Mr. Wil­liams said that meet­ing was “cor­dial and warm.”

But he said he’s wait­ing to see what Ottawa’s at­ti­tude is go­ing to be in fu­ture.

“ The proof of the pud­ding will be in the eat­ing. I’m pre­pared to give (Harper) the ben­e­fit of the doubt.”

2010

When it comes to the year ahead, Mr. Wil­liams is looking for­ward to a busy leg­isla­tive agenda in the spring.

“Gen­er­ally, my goal is to keep us mov­ing along and keep the mo­men­tum go­ing.”

He said the global econ­omy is start­ing to turn around, but an­other slump could hap­pen and he wants to make sure the prov­ince can weather any storm on the hori­zon.

He’s glad most pub­lic em­ploy­ees have new col­lec­tive agree­ments and hopes the out­stand­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions with the New­found­land and Labrador Med­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion, which rep­re­sents the prov­ince’s doc­tors, will con­clude early in the new year.

Premier Danny Wil­liams

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