Putting the best possible pre-election gloss on forecasts of deeper red ink for Ottawa, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is assuring Canadians the light at the end of the deficit tunnel should be visible by 2015.
Mr. Flaherty refused to promise when the Conservatives might balance the budget - blaming a murky economic outlook - but insisted the Tories are the only party that can be trusted to bring Ottawa back into surplus without raising taxes or cutting transfers to provinces.
The Conservative Finance Minister used an earlier-than-usual economic update released Thursday to stump for an apparently inevitable fall election campaign, warning the Liberals are not up to the task of balancing the books. The update said this year's deficit has soared to nearly $56-billion and predicts shortfalls will be deeper and more persistent than Ottawa had previously acknowledged, adding nearly $70-billion more to Canada's debt.
The Tories are both trying to assure voters of the ease of slaying the deficit and attempting to frame the task as so arduous only they can handle it. But this dual message track meant the Conservatives were broadcasting conflicting signals Thursday on the degree of heavy lifting required.
The Finance Department predicted budget shortfalls would dwindle to a "manageable" deficit of $5.2-billion by 2014-15 - just 0.3 per cent of economic output.
"With overall spending of around $300-billion [at that time] that would be a very modest deficit to deal with," Mr. Flaherty said.
But then he warned it would nevertheless be a struggle to get this under control. "That is not to say that returning to balance will be easy," Mr. Flaherty said in a speech to a Victoria, B.C., business crowd.
"It will require leadership and sustained discipline, especially with such a historic degree of uncertainty for the months and years ahead."
Although Mr. Flaherty had last week said he would lay out a path to balanced budgets - "how we will move back to surplus" - the effort presented Thursday fell well short of this.
The Conservatives said detailed measures would have to wait until their economic crystal ball grows clearer.
"The plan is to move toward surplus by 2014-2015," Mr. Flaherty said. "We'd like to have more certainty … we don't have that now."
This Tory caution is a change from last November when the Harper government released a five-year fiscal update forecasting an unbroken string of balanced budgets even as the economy was shrinking.
Mr. Flaherty nevertheless spelled out the bare bones of an approach to deficit reduction, saying the Tories would cut future growth in program spending to balance the books.
In a shot at the Liberals, who are gunning to shortly defeat the Harper government, he said the Tories wouldn't balance the budget by cutting transfers to individuals or provinces. The former Chrétien government slashed payments to provinces in the 1990s to eliminate the deficit.
Liberal finance critic John McCallum brushed off Mr. Flaherty's accusations, saying his party would not raise taxes or cut transfers to balance the budget. He noted that the Tories aren't keeping all levies steady, pointing out they will be hiking Employment Insurance premiums in the years ahead.
"Mr. Flaherty's legacy is the biggest deficit in our history, numbers all over the map and no credible plan to get out of it," Mr. McCallum said.
Toronto Dominion chief economist Don Drummond said Canada's deficit challenges still pale in comparison to other countries.
The Tories also appear to have shelved plans to lighten the deficit by selling government assets and Crown corporations, announcing in the update they will not budget for any expected revenue from this effort.