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Newfoundland and Labrador finance minister Bennett resigns after 18 months

Former Newfoundland and Labrador finance minister Cathy Bennett talks to reporters in Ottawa on Dec. 21, 2015.

FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Newfoundland and Labrador's embattled finance minister abruptly called it quits Monday, six months after she complained about being constantly bullied online by critics who used death threats and body shaming to ridicule the Liberal government's harsh budget measures.

On the job for only 19 months, Cathy Bennett was chief architect of the Liberals' first budget since they won the provincial election in November 2015, a wildly unpopular document that attempted to deal with the province's economic malaise amid slumping world oil prices by introducing sweeping tax increases and spending cuts.

Bennett could not be reached for comment Monday, but she issued a statement saying she resigned for "numerous personal reasons." The statement did not offer details.

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"She is wearing a lot of the frustration and a lot of the anger (at the government)," said Stephen Tomblin, a political science professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland. "There hasn't been a clear narrative. And there hasn't been a clear understanding of what the government is trying to do."

Within a few hours of Bennett's announcement, Premier Dwight Ball followed up with a major cabinet shuffle, which included replacing Bennett with veteran politician Tom Osborne — a former Progressive Conservative who once served in Danny Williams' cabinet. In all, eight cabinet ministers assumed new portfolios.

Tomblin said Ball's government is so low in the polls it must be difficult for those in cabinet.

"They seem to be out of their element, and it doesn't seem to be getting any better," he said. "It's not just a communications problem .... They've taken a number of missteps. They've changed positions constantly."

Aside from the budget cuts, which prompted protests across the province, the government has also come under fire for its handling of the $12.7-billion Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project in Labrador, which is far behind schedule and has seen its budget balloon by $5 billion since the former Conservative government approved the project five years ago.

When Bennett tabled her second budget in April, it did not raise fees or taxes, but the spending cuts continued. At the time, Bennett acknowledged Newfoundlanders and Labradorians were suffering from tax fatigue, but she said there would be more belt-tightening before the books would be balanced in 2022.

Last December, Bennett spoke out about cyberbullying, telling reporters she had faced suggestions that she kill herself.

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"I was bullied online and there was lots of language that I felt was inappropriate," Bennett told The Canadian Press at the time. She said the intense cyber abuse was so "vile and sexually exploitative" that she decided to share her disturbing story with a small group of female reporters.

"I wasn't personally comfortable having that discussion for the first time publicly with men in the room," she said at the time. "I knew I could be brave but everybody has their limits."

Various emails described her as "a monster" and "a witch," while another said: "I hope she chokes on her breakfast," and "You should do the world a favour and kill yourself."

Tomblin said the online pressure may have played a role in Bennett's decision to step down.

"Being in politics is a really tough game, more so for women than for men," he said. "I would expect that she probably took a lot more abuse than probably a male politician would."

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