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Market losses present dilemma for parties’ economic plans

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, who has made balanced budgets a key plank in his campaign, suggested Monday that new measures may be required should the economic situation worsen.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Federal party leaders are facing the tough choice of balancing the books or promising new fiscal measures to stimulate a sluggish Canadian economy.

With prices for North American crude sliding to $38.24 (U.S.) a barrel Monday amid deep losses on international markets in response to weakening global growth, parties are shifting their campaign rhetoric to fit with the latest economic news.

None of the three major parties have released their full campaign platforms, meaning party officials still have time to revise their original policy promises.

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Conservative Leader Stephen Harper has made balanced budgets a key plank in the campaign debate and his government's April budget left little fiscal room for other parties to promise significant new spending.

As a result, any pledges to repeat the 2009 practice of jolting a weak economy with fiscal stimulus would likely require short-term deficits.

All three leaders argued Monday that their existing plans provide what's needed to boost the Canadian economy and criticized their rivals.

Mr. Harper did suggest, however, that new measures may be required should the situation worsen.

"We have a range of tools with which we can respond were we to face some obviously much more serious circumstances. But I don't speculate on more serious circumstances," he said.

Mr. Harper did not clarify what tools he had in mind, nor did he define what he meant by more serious circumstances. The Prime Minister's Office later revealed that Mr. Harper spoke Monday with Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz to discuss the decline in global stock markets and commodity prices and slowing growth in China.

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair is promising to release a detailed platform, but has not said whether it will be based on balanced budgets in both the near and longer term. He stressed the importance of balanced budgets earlier this month when announcing former Saskatchewan finance minister Andrew Thomson would be running as an NDP candidate in Toronto.

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Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has already suggested his party's platform will show deficits in the short term. He repeated Monday that the timeline for returning to balance would depend on the size of the "mess" left behind by the Conservatives. Mr. Trudeau has promised to meet with provincial Premiers to discuss "economic stimulus" should the Liberals form government after the election.

CIBC World Markets chief economist Avery Shenfeld is urging federal party leaders to be clearer on these points.

"All three major parties ultimately backed deficit spending as a tool to fight the last recession. All three are now talking about budget balances, or near misses and a short delay in getting there if revenues fall short. But there's been not a word yet on how high unemployment would have to go before a new round of stimulus and larger deficits would be warranted. Or are we not all Keynesians now?" he asked in a recent research note.

Mr. Shenfeld declined to say Monday whether he believes fiscal stimulus is warranted at this point. His comment on Keynesian economics is in reference to the theory that governments should spend more – even by running deficits – to stimulate the economy during hard times and government should pay off debt and prepare for future recessions during good times.

The issue for Canada and many other Western nations is that they have not yet paid off the debt that was incurred during the last round of deficit-financed stimulus spending. Still, Canada's federal debt is low by international standards.

Economist Sherry Cooper of Dominion Lending Centres is among those who are calling for a new round of fiscal stimulus.

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"I think Mr. Harper is far too sanguine about the Canadian economy," Ms. Cooper said Monday, predicting further layoffs can be expected in Alberta. "Canada is sideswiped by global developments beyond our control, but fiscal stimulus can help. Monetary stimulus has run its course and now is no time to be slavishly balancing budgets."

The Parliamentary Budget Officer said in July that due to slower growth, Ottawa's projected surplus of $1.4-billion this year is on track to become a $1-billion deficit.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

A member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery since 1999, Bill Curry worked for The Hill Times and the National Post prior to joining The Globe in Feb. 2005. Originally from North Bay, Ont., Bill reports on a wide range of topics on Parliament Hill, with a focus on finance. More

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