N.S. NDP make no mention of balanced budget promise in first throne speech

HALIFAX, N.S. - Nova Scotia's first NDP government shied away from making any daring statements Thursday in an inaugural speech from the throne that read more like an old campaign pamphlet than a bold vision for the province's future.

HALIFAX, N.S. - Nova Scotia's first NDP government shied away from making any daring statements Thursday in an inaugural speech from the throne that read more like an old campaign pamphlet than a bold vision for the province's future.

The low-key speech, which contained few new initiatives, kicked off the first session of the legislature since the New Democrats won a provincial election in June, forming the first NDP government in Atlantic Canada.

Premier Darrell Dexter, who has cultivated an image as a prudent administrator over the years, repeated many of the same comforting themes he offered during the 35-day election campaign.

"Nova Scotians can be assured we will live within our means," Dexter wrote in the speech, read in the legislature by Lt.-Gov. Mayann Francis.

But the slim, 12-page speech is notable for what it does not contain.

There is no mention of the party's key commitment to balance the province's budget next spring without raising taxes or substantially cutting government spending.

Despite the global recession, flat government revenue and a ballooning deficit, Dexter has repeatedly promised to erase the province's red ink in the 2010-2011 fiscal plan.

He has denied program cuts or public service layoffs will be needed because he believes his government can help the economy generate enough jobs and revenue to put the province back in the black.

When asked whether the electorate should read anything into the fact his throne speech did not refer to his promise to balance the books, Dexter replied with a curt, "No."

"The speech from the throne said we will live within out means," he said outside the legislature. "That's what we are committed to. This is the day when we set out to demonstrate the many things that we want to accomplish."

But there is every indication the government is facing an uphill climb as it prepares to introduce a budget next week that will be virtually identical to the ill-fated financial plan tabled in May when the former Conservative government fell on a confidence motion, triggering the election.

With the NDP's decision this week to shift $340 million in future university funding to the current budget - a move criticized as a shell game by the Opposition Liberals - the province is facing a hefty $590-million deficit in 2009-2010.

As well, an independent financial review revealed last month that if the government continues spending the way its predecessor did, Nova Scotia's deficit will climb to $1.3 billion by 2012.

Earlier this week, Finance Minister Graham Steele confirmed the government would amend the province's balanced budget legislation to allow for a deficit in this fiscal year. But he stressed it was not clear yet whether there would be a deficit in the spring budget.

However, three of the four members of a recently appointed economic advisory panel have come forward to say the government should forget about keeping its promise to balance the budget in the short term.

The panel is expected to release its recommendations in late October.

"We will listen," the throne speech says. "We will make careful, disciplined choices as we face the challenges ahead."

Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil said the NDP simply won't be able to draft a balanced budget next spring, and the new government now has to persuade the electorate that breaking a key promise will be in the best interests of Nova Scotia.

"That speech was about building a plan to move away from keeping that commitment and other commitments the government has in place," he said, accusing the NDP of using the independent financial review and the panel of advisers as "political cover."

"I'm not surprised that they didn't mention it at all ... (but) I expect (Dexter) to live up to what he said he could do. You shouldn't go into an election campaign saying one thing, and doing something else the day after."

Karen Casey, interim leader of the Conservative party, said the throne speech contained nothing but "motherhood issues."

"There wasn't anything new today. They didn't tell Nova Scotians a single thing, in my view, (on how) to move forward. What are they going to do to deal with the tough economic challenges we're facing?"

The throne speech was also remarkable for its upbeat tone, even though the province is carrying a massive $12-billion accumulated debt while revenues from the natural gas industry continue to shrink in the recession.

Dexter told reporters there was no point getting stuck in the past.

"We have to start saying what is absolutely true about any recession, which is that recessions end," he said.

"We have to adopt a positive attitude about the economic prospects for the future. We recognize ... that we are in difficult financial times and they have consequences ... but we can't dwell on what has happened. We have to dwell on what must happen."

The speech says one of the government's first challenges is dealing with the threat posed by the spread of the swine flu, and it goes on to repeat most of the promises the NDP made during the election campaign.





Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Troy Fleece

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