The flag of Newfoundland and Labrador is pictured in this file photo.

The dismal financial outlook in Newfoundland and Labrador was centre stage in an election debate Wednesday night, with party leaders sparring over what to do about the province's massive debt and spending problems.

Liberal Leader and incumbent Premier Andrew Furey said he disliked how his opponent uses the term "bankruptcy" to define the province's fiscal troubles. By using that word on the campaign trail, Progressive Conservative Leader Ches Crosbie was "already waving the flag" of defeat, Furey said.

"Mr. Crosbie is campaigning to be the last premier of Newfoundland and Labrador," the premier added.

The Tory leader hit back: "I'm a straight shooter. And that's why I use words like 'bankrupt,' because it cuts to the heart of the matter."

With a net debt of $16.4 billion, the Atlantic province of about 520,000 people has the highest debt-to-GDP ratio in the country. Debt-servicing costs are the province's second-largest expense after health care. Experts say with no sign of resuscitation in the local offshore oil industry, those costs will only get worse if drastic measures aren't taken.

The debate gave voters a look at Furey's fiscal priorities after a Liberal campaign defined largely by low-stakes announcements about community gardens and programs to unite youth and seniors.

Furey repeatedly brought up the troubled Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project, whose costs essentially doubled to $13.1 billion since it was given the green light in 2012 under a previous Tory government. Without a change in course, electricity rates in the province could also double, in order to pay for the project.

"We have to deal with Muskrat Falls first," Furey insisted as he defended himself against attacks from Crosbie, who said Furey didn't know how to get the province out of its fiscal hole. Furey touted the recent deal he'd struck with Ottawa, allowing the province to defer $840 million in financing payments for the project, emphasizing that talks with the federal government about the staggering costs and burden of the ill-fated project had only just begun.

"These are all the things I've brought to the table in the first five months -- gimme four years," he said.

The Liberal leader also had to fend off accusations from NDP Leader Alison Coffin, who said he wasn't willing to make the right investments to help struggling voters escape poverty.

Furey said "no magic bullet" is going to fix Newfoundland and Labrador's financial mess. He didn't give specific details on how he would pull the province out of debt, but said "mass layoffs aren't the answer."

"We didn't get into these fiscal issue because of the hard work of nurses," Furey said.

"Well I'm glad to hear we won't be cutting," Coffin told Furey. But, she added, the province should be spending more on public sector employees like nurses and paramedics. Front-line health-care workers are overworked and stressed out, Coffin said, adding that they need more support, not less.

Furey, who was an orthopedic surgeon before he became premier in August, reminded his colleagues that he was the only one in the room who had direct experience working alongside overburdened health-care workers.

Coffin also called for a $15 minimum wage and dismissed Furey's suggestion that raising the minimum wage would make the province uncompetitive. "We don't want to be known as the place where you can come and get cheap labour," she said.

Crosbie, meanwhile, said he wanted to go over the province's expenditures line by line to cut waste. "But that's only half of what is required," he said, adding that the province needs to increase economic growth.

With just 10 days left before the Feb. 13 vote, only one party -- the NDP -- had released a platform by Wednesday night. The Liberals and Progressive Conservatives have said they will release their platforms this week, though neither provided an exact date.

Heading into the election, the Liberals held 19 of the legislature's 40 seats, the Progressive Conservatives held 15 seats, the NDP had three and there were three Independents.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 3, 2021.