With the Commons shuttered, Stephen Harper's Conservatives and Michael Ignatieff's Liberals are taking their political pitches directly to voters in what's shaping up to be a battle of jobs versus restraint.
It was supposed to be a back-to-work Monday in Ottawa for MPs: the day the House of Commons would have returned from its winter break if Prime Minister Harper had not intervened to suspend Parliament until March. Instead, both the Liberals and the Conservatives were competing to appear active on the fragile economy.
The Liberals used the occasion to gather outside the empty Commons and rebrand themselves using the promise of job creation, saying they would let Canada's already massive deficit grow even bigger, if necessary, to fund job-growth measures.
"What we're definitely calling for is additional measures to promote and save jobs. That's priority No. 1. That could lead to a higher deficit, [but] there could be some items the Harper government is doing that they don't need to do," Liberal finance critic John McCallum said.
The move is an effort by Liberals to draw a starker contrast between their party and the Conservatives, who last week signalled they're preparing to make a top priority of slaying the deficit through restraint.
Mr. Harper telegraphed this intention a week ago, when he appointed trusted lieutenant Stockwell Day as President of Treasury Board. Mr. Day will lead a cost-cutting drive that accelerates after stimulus spending ends in March, 2011.
Conservative MP James Rajotte, who chairs the Commons finance committee, said the Liberals are clearly taking a different tack, but have proven inconsistent.
"Their party is calling for increased spending in almost every area. At a certain point they've got to come forward and say, 'Here's what kind of deficit the Liberal Party would have and here's now we would deal with it,' " he said.
The Liberals, so far, appear willing to risk the deficit-cutting reputation they earned while in government in the 1990s. Mr. McCallum used that record to argue the party deserves trust despite criticism that it would dig the country further into the red.
"At the appropriate time, we will have a credible plan on that front, but that time is not now. Right now, today, I'm telling you the priority for the Liberal Party is jobs," Mr. McCallum said.
"As the jobs come back, wages and salaries will be higher, tax revenues will be higher, so that will be part of the way in which we come out of this hole."
Mr. Rajotte said the Tories are committed to stimulus spending for another year but are determined to start laying out a plan for balancing the budget.
The Conservatives have begun blitzing Canada with a flurry of budget consultations that include questions about how Canadians think Ottawa should make cuts to start tackling the deficit in 2011 and beyond. Tory MPs held 10 roundtables with constituents Monday on Canada's fiscal situation, as well as a Montreal forum with businesspeople. The government plans to stage about 200 forums across the country in the weeks ahead.
It's a theme designed to reassure the red-meat Conservative base that the Harper Tories haven't abandoned their fiscal roots despite facing deficits projected to exceed $170-billion over five years.
Under fire for proroguing Parliament, the Tories are anxious to demonstrate they're busy working over the next month. They're trying to dispel charges from critics that the suspended sitting was a bid to kill the momentum of opposition-led hearings probing the torture of Afghan prisoners.
The Prime Minister's Office even released a list Monday detailing the Monday activities of more than 30 Conservative MPs and senators to demonstrate how busy they were.
Also Monday, a leading Canadian economist threw cold water on the Conservative government's assertion that it can rely on economic growth and spending cuts alone to dig Ottawa out of the deficit hole.
Dale Orr warned that without tax hikes, it could easily take another decade to eliminate the deficit should Ottawa be unable to keep spending increases to a bare minimum.
Mr. Orr said it will be 2020-2021 before the federal government balances its books if program spending increases by a mere 4 per cent a year. That's half the rate of spending growth in recent years, before the recession.
Ottawa can return to the black by 2016-2017 - seven years out - if it can restrain spending increases to 3 per cent annual growth, Mr. Orr said, but he added that he doesn't think that is realistic.
The Liberals' focus on jobs brings back echoes of 1993, when Jean Chrétien's "Jobs, jobs, jobs" mantra beat out the recession-scarred Conservatives of Kim Campbell. Mr. Ignatieff's political strategy is now in the hands of a veteran of 1993, chief of staff Peter Donolo, who was Mr. Chrétien's communications director.
Mr. Ignatieff's party has held a series of meeting in the Parliament buildings with industry and labour groups to discuss job creation proposals. It expects to begin unveiling such proposals within a week, Mr. McCallum said.
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