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Thank you Cathy (Bennett).
Before I begin, I want to just make one quick plea. I absolutely cannot speak for each and every Newfoundlander and Labradorian. But I'm going take my liberties and speak for one particular group who I feel do not have a voice. So on behalf of all Newfoundland and Labrador puffins, I ask Stephen Harper to leave our provincial bird out of his nasty, disgusting, personal attack ads. The people of this province didn’t appreciate being used by you for our votes the last time and our birds don’t particularly like being used by you either.
The last time I was here nearly one year ago, we were about to head into a provincial general election.
I recall sharing with you that day our election campaign song and drawing your attention to the lines, "We know what we’re fighting for; We believe in what we’re fighting for; We love what we’re fighting for; Newfoundland and Labrador."
I even tried to sing along. A good example of not recognizing you own limitations!
And now a year later, we are in the midst of a federal election campaign and we still know what we are fighting for and it is still Newfoundland and Labrador.
Our own campaign song was not just a hollow campaign jingle. These words embody our province’s new attitude, and our renewed determination and pride.
And I can not think of a more exciting time in our history to be a Newfoundlander and Labradorian.
I think the members of the St. John’s Board of Trade would agree. I read this week a comment from your VP, BruceTempleton who said that, "95 per cent of members who responded that the economic conditions were good or excellent, and half that their companies (financial) position in 2008 was better than 2007."
This is the kind of stuff I love to hear as Premier of this great province.
The main tenet of our government has always been no more giveaways, and the reason we enjoy such great success as a government is that people really believe in this vision.
From the historic signing of the Atlantic Accord, to an equity interest in White Rose expansion, to the signing of the recent Hebron agreement, we have truly taken control of not only our resources but of our destiny.
And you will see more of the same in the future on our approach to Churchill hydro power.
We are no longer content to sit back and allow others to determine what our fate will be; we are taking that matter into our own hands.
In 5 short years, we have taken this province from among the poorest in the country, to a province on the very cusp of "have" status. Our strength and determination is taking us to that proud moment in our history. Unique in eastern Canada; no longer dependent on the Federal Government.
And when I say "we" I mean not just our government, but the people, the communities, the business leaders – everyone who supported our vision and bolstered our economy along the way.
In 2007, real GDP in Newfoundland and Labrador increased by 7.9 percent. The unemployment rate fell to its lowest rate in 26 years.
Last year we saw a growth in personal income of 4.3 percent and personal disposable income growth of 5 percent.
Retail sales grew by 9.0 percent and residential construction investment increased by 9.9 percent with over 26 hundred housing starts. The last half of 2007, and the first quarter of this year, saw a combined net in-migration of nearly 24 hundred people.
You’ve heard me say before that everywhere I go in the province I meet young people, young families, who are moving home to put down roots. And every time I hear one of those stories it is music to my ears!
In 2008, we expect new housing starts to remain very strong and we expect capital investment to increase by 15 percent. This includes investment in oil and gas projects of about 1 billion dollars.
Employment is expected to increase which translates into another 33 hundred person years of employment and is expected to further reduce our unemployment rate to 12.4 percent. We expect employment at over 220 thousand person-years, the highest in the history of the province.
In April, we were so proud to report the largest surplus in the history of this province – nearly 1.4 billion dollars. Yes that’s billion with a "B". Five years ago when I entered office I would have been ecstatic with a 1.4 million dollar surplus – 1.4 billion wasn’t something I imagined in my wildest dreams!
Our current forecast for 2008 is pointing to a surplus of 544 million dollars which will be our fourth consecutive surplus. And if oil prices stay high, we can expect to see that number increase significantly.
Ladies and gentlemen, at the beginning of 2007, the provincial debt stood at a staggering 11.6 billion dollars. By the end of 2008, we anticipate that it will have been reduced to a single digit.
And, while this is still a staggering figure that must be addressed, our government has demonstrated that we are committed to moving in the right direction on responsible debt reduction, placing this province on a sure financial footing in the decades to come.
In our Blueprint when times were very tough, we set a goal of debt to GDP ratio of 40% at the end of 8 years. We achieved that last year with an estimated debt to GDP ratio of 38%.
But we are not just about debt reduction. We have taken a much more strategic and balanced approach to managing the province’s finances. Because we know that for far too long the people have suffered the consequences of poor financial health, and now they deserve to reap in the rewards.
As well, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have had the demoralizing distinction of being the most heavily taxed citizens in the entire country.
By the end of this year, our government will have put approximately 477 million dollars back into the pockets of the people of this province with personal income, insurance and other tax cuts.
We have also demonstrated our support for the people represented in this room – the business people and entrepreneurs who keep our economic engine humming.
That is why effective January 1, 2008, we increased the payroll tax exemption threshold from 500,000 dollars to 1 million dollars, putting 6.5 million dollars annually back into the hands of employers.
Our significant spending annually of approximately 500 million dollars on infrastructure, roads, hospitals, long term care facilities, schools, broadband to name a few is employing thousands of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians and creating profits for business of all sizes.
Also spurring economic growth are the many significant projects on the horizon that will allow Newfoundland and Labrador to stay on the path to prosperity. Obviously, one of the most exciting projects is the Hebron development which we just finalized.
The vision and opportunity that this agreement embodies is like nothing else this province has ever seen. The final agreement which secures our 4.9 percent equity stake puts us squarely in the business of oil and gas and increases our overall return.
This agreement provides for more local fabrication and engineering work, a new super royalty resulting in higher revenues than the White Rose or Terra Nova projects, and an estimated 3500 jobs at peak.
And of course, there will be tremendous indirect and induced spin offs as capital is deployed, people are working and money is being spent spurring even further economic growth.
With tens of billions of dollars of revenue coming on stream, this project is a huge part of the legacy that our generation leaves our children and grandchildren.
The revenues from the Hebron development will give this province financial and investment options that, until now, we could only dream of. So let’s ensure we spend it wisely, strategically and with a view to the future.
One challenge that the Hebron development highlights is that of attracting skilled workers to our province. And that is something that many businesses face no matter what sector you are in.
We are ensuring we are ready to tackle this challenge by implementing the recommendations of our Skills Task Force Report, which include introducing new career information officers in our high schools and establishing new career work centres throughout the province.
We have also recently embarked on a 1.4 million dollar Youth Retention and Attraction Strategy which is an extensive consultation process involving young people. We want to hear directly from them what it will take for them to stay here or return home for a fulfilling life and career.
We are also establishing an international registry to allow people from anywhere and everywhere to connect to employers and the exciting opportunities that exist in Newfoundland and Labrador.
These are just a couple of initiatives in workforce recruitment and retention to ensure that the St. John’s Board of Trade and other like minded organizations across the province have large and vibrant memberships for many, many years to come!
And I want you to know that we appreciate your strong support through difficult times as well as your constructive criticism when warranted.
The road over the past five years has not always been an easy one. From negotiating the new Atlantic Accord, to dealing with broken promises, to securing our place as a full partner in the oil and gas business, I think you all know that we have faced our challenges as a government and as a province.
Because looking back today at what we have achieved, I do not regret one decision. I chuckled and found it ironic when some national media after Hebron wondered if we had left anything on the table.
I can take the heat from the local and national media and the opposition, as long as I have the people’s support.
Newfoundlanders and Labradorians believe in our position, in our philosophy and in our vision, and I can assure you that that confidence and solidarity strengthens our position as a province at boardroom tables, with the federal government and with whoever stands in our way of achieving our goals.
Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn was supposed to deliver a speech to the NOIA Convention in June of 2007. He was unable to deliver it in person because his plane could not land due to weather.
I would like to read a passage from that speech that I think is interesting - because it shows the misplaced and paternalistic attitude of a federal government towards Newfoundland and Labrador.
While we were seeking and negotiating major benefits from the oil companies for the people of the province, this is what our federal Natural Resources Minister was saying from 40,000 feet: "…at some point the provincial government has to lay out what it wants or people will start to question whether they know what they want or where they are going. The test will be whether it attracts investment…if we see exploration increase…if developments proceed…if your businesses grow and prosper…."
Well ladies and gentlemen, you can be the judge. Did we pass the test? Did we know where we were going? Did we attract investment and see developments proceed? Are your businesses prospering? Do we think the consequences of standing up for the province were worth it? You bet we do!
While I am on the topic of our federal government, allow me a few words on the federal election, and the very dire consequences that could face us should Stephen Harper and his right-wing Conservative-Reform Party form a majority government in the coming weeks.
First, let me remind you that Stephen Harper as Opposition Leader together with the Conservative Newfoundland and Labrador MPs voted against the Government Bill that gave us the 2 billion dollar Atlantic Accord cheque.
"Trust us; we know what we’re doing," they said at the time. Thank goodness we didn’t take them at their word back then.
On top of that we now have the 10 billion dollar broken promise on the removal of non-renewable resource revenue from the equalization formula.
This promise was made in the past two elections in writing, in their campaign platform and in subsequent letters. And let’s face it folks – regardless of our recent financial well-being that 10 billion dollars would have made a huge difference to the bottom line of our province.
But now, all of a sudden, because we have finally achieved some self sufficiency we should forget the promise. Or so say Conservative candidates. After all, God forbid Newfoundland and Labrador get what is rightfully theirs as partners in Canada. We have put up with that attitude in this province for 55 years and look where that has gotten us in the past.
Stephen Harper’s own campaign literature proclaimed, "There is no greater fraud than a promise not kept." He used these words as he successfully attempted to woo voters from this province to not vote for the opposing party.
Naively we trusted him. He rewarded that trust with a broken promise. According to his own brochure – he is a fraud.
I think you all know my views on this issue and I firmly believe that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians at home and abroad still feel the same cold, sharp sting of betrayal at the hands of our country’s leader.
Other commitments were also made by Stephen Harper that were not kept. 5-Wing Goose Bay; custodial management; a Lower Churchill guarantee and numerous others.
We all know that these promises are sadly not worth the paper they were written on and the bond of his word is meaningless.
The raising of rates at Marine Atlantic in times of high gas prices, poor service and inaction on badly needed vessels is another example of their attitude to isolate the island and which creates more economic hardship on small rural businesses.
American actress, Katherine Hepburn, once said, "To keep your character intact you cannot stoop to filthy acts. It makes it easier to stoop the next time". I believe these words hold a dire warning for all Canadians.
If Harper is prepared to slash program spending with large surpluses and break his written word as the leader of a minority government, the future for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, and indeed all Canadians, will be very bleak under a Conservative majority. Do not let Stephen Harper turn your focus onto a green shift in his attempt to turn your focus away from the Conservative’s blue shaft.
His list of broken and unfulfilled promises portrays a lack of integrity in his character and shows us he cannot be trusted.
This is a federal government willing to not only break their own promises, but they go so far as to break their own laws and call an election even though they mandated fixed election dates. There is nothing Harper will not do to win a majority government.
This is a party who purportedly offered a terminally ill MP a life insurance policy to get his vote. How low can you go? This is a man who wants an election before losing by-elections that were to have taken place this month. A man who wants an election before the economy declines any further due to fiscal mismanagement.
He wants an election before findings are released on various ethical breaches against his government.
It is so critically important that the people of Newfoundland and Labrador let Stephen Harper know that his treatment, his attitude, his indifference to this province is NOT acceptable. When I met with him to offer a compromise he told me face-to-face that he does not need the people of this province to win an election. So, let’s let him know that we don’t need him either.
His own candidates and MPs admit that the promise was broken, but we should forgive and forget. Well folks, forgiveness may be a virtue; but forgetting is just plain fool hardy. In the very words of Stephen Harper’s own candidate in St. John’s East just a year ago, "Given his handling of equalization, who can trust the Prime Minister anyway?"
Here in Newfoundland and Labrador we need to ask ourselves: is it ok for the man occupying the highest office in our country to treat a province in this federation with such distain?
We should show him we don’t put up with that in Newfoundland and Labrador any more. Vote Anything But Conservative. Even his own candidates say "they don’t trust him." So why should you?
How does it make us feel when the Prime Minister of Canada invites backbencher Newfoundland and Labrador M.P. Fabian Manning into the front bench in the House of Commons to smile and laugh along with him as he openly mocks this province upon delivering the best budget in its history?
It was a betrayal that was felt deeply across this province as another MP put Ottawa ahead of province. If Stephen Harper gets a majority government, I’ll remind you of the words of Bachman Turner Overdrive, "You ain’t seen nothing yet."
And the only reason we have not seen his full plan for Canada implemented is because he had a minority government to keep him in check.
I can only say this and I say it with all sincerity and genuine concern for our great country – a majority government for Stephen Harper would be one of the most negative political events in Canadian history.
Even without a majority he has cut funding for minorities; cut funding for literacy; cut funding to students, volunteers, museums and arts and culture groups right across the country. His government cut funding to women’s groups; and in fact his government actually went so far as to remove the federal mandate to advance equality for women.
This all happened under a minority government. What in heaven’s name will happen if he gets his majority government?
And make no mistake – you won’t hear Stephen Harper admit he may win a majority government because he is terrified that people might stop and actually start to think about the consequences.
Well, I beg you all today. Stop. Think. And decide if that is what this country deserves? When we vote, I would rather that we stand on the solid ground of principles than on the shaky ground of broken promises. If you believe the country deserves better, you know what to do. It is as easy as ABC.
Ladies and Gentlemen, we are moving onward and upward as a province and our star has never been brighter, despite Harper and his government.
While our economic engine is running full tilt, now is the time to plan for our future.
Former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once said, "we are not creatures of circumstance; we are creators of circumstance".
Our fortunes are indeed changing here in Newfoundland and Labrador. We no longer are the poor cousins in Confederation. We have boldly and proudly taken control of our own destiny.
We have regained the confident and pioneering spirit of our ancestors, and have come to believe, as they did, that here in Newfoundland and Labrador, anything is possible.
This is powerful stuff.
Ladies and gentlemen, we have entered a new era filled with exciting possibilities – Canada’s youngest and coolest province is never looking back. There is no culture of defeat in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Thank you for your confidence and
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