Balancing the federal budget is an exercise that could conceivably take years, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau suggested Wednesday as he turned up the heat on the NDP to explain how they would pull it off soon after being elected.
But the attack on New Democrats and a demand for specifics raises uncomfortable questions for Liberals, who have not spelled out their deficit-fighting policy ideas beyond the fuzzy notion of growing the economy for the middle class.
Trudeau denied he's been opaque.
"We have said very clearly that although the Liberal party continues to be the party that is committed to balancing the budget and making sure we maintain fiscal responsibility and discipline; how many years it takes to balance that budget is what we will be talking about in the coming days and weeks," he said Wednesday.
Trudeau has attempted to reframe the economic debate as a choice between growing the economy and austerity, which is a politically loaded word in light of the recent market meltdown and ongoing debate about Greece.
Opening the door to multiple federal deficits and the choice of words may turn out to be red meat to his opponents, who've repeatedly attempted to cast him as an economic lightweight who would make deficit financing a fixture, rather than an exception.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has warned that both the Liberals and NDP would lead the country back into disastrous structural deficits.
Trudeau said eight straight Conservative deficits mean Harper has no right to lecture anyone on finances.
"We are in deficit now," said Trudeau.
Both opposition parties seem to agree the further collapse of oil prices and ongoing economic uncertainty means the country's finances are once again in the red — a point the Conservatives are not prepared to concede. Finance Minister Joe Oliver was slated to deliver an economic address Wednesday in Toronto, but the event was scrubbed at the last minute.
"The way to grow out of deficits is through economic growth; is through investing in Canadians," Trudeau said. "That is how you avoid structural deficits. You just have to look at recent history. Conservatives run deficits, Liberals know how to grow the budget into balance."
Trudeau has been pilloried in Conservative attacks with a selectively edited interview quote where he said that the federal budget will "balance itself." The notion that economic prosperity fills federal coffers naturally is a well-worn political strategy.
The Liberals of the 1990s, whom Trudeau has been eager to hold up as examples, had the good fortune of having a rising economy, but they also slashed spending on defence and social transfers to the provinces.
Trudeau did not say what a new Liberal government would cut in order to return to balance.
Also Wednesday, the Liberals promised — if elected — to give teachers and early childhood educators a tax break on extra school supplies purchased out of their own pockets.
It would provide up to a $150 refundable tax benefit on $1,000 worth of material, including posters, specialized art supplies and books.
The cost is expected to be about $60-million per year.
The Conservatives quickly dismissed the plan and pointed out their employment credit, introduced in 2006, already covers teachers and professionals more broadly for the cost of job-related supplies.