Andrew Scheer says a federal Conservative government elected this fall would act “responsibly” to balance the books, announcing a timeline that would see deficits continue through at least its first term.
The party leader said Friday the most optimistic projections don’t have the Liberals balancing the budget for 20 years, but as prime minister he would balance the budget “in a quarter of that time.”
“To be clear, my platform will have a fully costed, independently vetted fiscal plan that will get Canada back in the black; one that eliminates waste, slows spending growth and phases out the Trudeau deficit in the medium term," Mr. Scheer told a gathering at the Canadian Club in the latest in a series of policy speeches.
The Tory leader said his approach to balancing the federal budget won’t affect the Canada Child Benefit, seniors’ benefits or transfers to provinces. “They are already budgeted for the long term and I am committed to them,” he said.
The Liberal government’s 2019 budget said the deficit will decline to $9.8-billion in 2023-24, but did not announce a target date for its elimination. A Finance Department report released in December said the deficit is on pace to be erased by about 2040.
Mr. Scheer said deficits under the Liberals will lead to massive tax hikes, deep cuts “or some terrible combination of the two.”
“We must responsibly phase out the Trudeau deficit,” said Mr. Scheer, warning that a lack of action will lead to additional interest payments spending and a reduction in spending options for “cherished programs.”
Mr. Scheer declined to meet with the media following his speech to answer questions.
Former Conservative finance minister Joe Oliver, who is a vocal advocate for balanced budgets, told The Globe and Mail he expects Mr. Scheer will beat these new targets.
“I support his plan and expect that he will be able to reach his objective before the end of a majority term in office,” Mr. Oliver told The Globe in an e-mail. “In contrast, under the Liberals, there would be no reasonable prospect of a balanced budget for decades, if ever.”
The federal Liberals issued a statement ahead of Mr. Scheer’s remarks that linked the federal Tory leader to Ontario Premier Doug Ford.
“Andrew Scheer is committed to austerity and cuts," Jonathan Wilkinson, a Liberal MP from B.C. and Fisheries Minister, said. "He’s now promising five years of cuts. Just like Doug Ford is doing. Canadians have seen what Conservative politicians do. They make devastating cuts. Ford is slashing health, education, environmental programs, and even libraries. Andrew Scheer is just another Conservative politician.”
Maxime Bernier says he expects his new party will get a boost of support now that Mr. Scheer is softening his focus on balancing the books. Mr. Bernier said in an interview that Mr. Scheer’s new willingness to accept deficits shows the Peoples Party is the true conservative option for voters this fall.
Mr. Bernier lost to Mr. Scheer in the Conservative Party’s 2017 leadership race by the narrowest of margins – 51 per cent to 49 per cent in the 13th round of voting – and has since gone on to form the Peoples Party of Canada, which has largely attracted criticism for fueling anti-immigration sentiment and endorsing fringe candidates.
Mr. Scheer’s deficit-cutting plans are similar to those touted by Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau made in August, 2015. Until that point, all three major political parties were promising balanced budgets.
Mr. Trudeau announced a Liberal government would run deficits of no more than $10-billion a year before erasing the deficit in 2019. The political gambit allowed the Liberals to draw support from the NDP, which entered that summer as the front-runner according to public opinion surveys.
After Mr. Trudeau’s deficit announcement, support for the NDP collapsed and the Liberals jumped from third place to forming a majority government in October, 2015.
Once in government however, the Liberal Party failed to stick within its deficit plan. Rather than keeping the three-year deficit total under $30-billion, the Liberal government’s first two full fiscal years in power produced a combined deficit of $37.9-billion, while the next two fiscal years are projected to add a further $34.7-billion in red ink, for a combined four-year total of $72.6-billion.
Another Liberal government focused on erasing the deficit in the mid-1990s after Canada faced a debt crisis, with the federal debt-to-GDP ratio climbing to 66.8 per cent in 1995-96. Surpluses returned two years later and continued until the financial crisis of 2008. Stephen Harper’s Conservative government ran a $56.3-billion deficit in 2009-10 as part of a plan to stimulate the economy. Deficits then shrunk gradually to near balance just ahead of the 2015 election campaign.
In spite of the deficits, the federal debt-to-GDP ratio has improved since the 1990s and stood at 31.3 per cent in 2017-18.