Harper says Thursday’s budget the hardest

OTTAWA — Stephen Harper got lots of practice saying “no” during preparations for Thursday’s federal budget.

OTTAWA — Stephen Harper got lots of practice saying “no” during preparations for Thursday’s federal budget.

With the government looking to trim a record $56 billion deficit, the prime minister said Monday that he and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty have spent more time together working on this budget than any other.

And he said it’s been their most difficult budget so far, even though it will be their smallest.

“We’re now in the business of saying what are all the things we have to say ‘no’ to instead of all the things we have to say ‘yes’ to,” Harper said in Vancouver.

“That’s proven to be a much tougher exercise but one that does have to be done.”

However, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff urged the government not to simply take an axe to spending.

He wants Harper to say “yes” to measures that will create jobs and ease the plight of the unemployed. And he wants the government to continue funding elite athletes through the Own the Podium program, which is credited with helping Canada reap a record gold medal haul at the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games.

“The key issue in the country right now is unemployment,” Ignatieff said in Ottawa following a Liberal-sponsored panel discussion on government accountability.

Ignatieff has specifically proposed a series of tax incentives to help manufacturers purchase new equipment, encourage employers to hire young people and promote investment in start-up companies.

The Liberal leader also said he wants to see a credible long-term plan for eliminating the deficit. But he was careful not to threaten an election should the budget fail to deliver.

“I don’t hear around me people calling for an election.”

The budget is not expected to include any big new spending or tax measures. But it won’t exactly turn off the taps immediately, dispensing $19 billion for phase two of the economic stimulus plan that was announced in last year’s budget.

Indeed, even as he portrayed himself as Dr. No, Harper was announcing $17 million in federal funding for 15 British Columbia infrastructure projects.

However the budget is also expected to outline a plan to reduce the deficit beginning next year, and eventually return to fiscal balance.

Harper said Canada is “past the worst” of last year’s worldwide recession — as reflected in Monday’s news that economic growth surged during the fourth quarter of 2009. But he said continued stimulus spending is needed until the global recovery is “entrenched.”

“Sometimes you have to walk and chew gum at the same time in this business,” Harper said.

“We do have to continue to deliver this extraordinary set of stimulus measures and frankly the extraordinary cost that goes with them. But at the same time we do have to plan our exit.

“We know we cannot . . . continue to spend at this kind of level indefinitely.”

Ignatieff said it sounds like Flaherty will produce a “stand pat” budget, which he said makes a mockery of Harper’s assertion that he needed to suspend Parliament to give the government time to “recalibrate” its agenda.

Opposition parties contend Harper prorogued Parliament, which was to have resumed Jan. 25, strictly to shut down an opposition-driven inquiry into allegations of torture involving Afghan detainees.

Ignatieff said Harper must abide by a motion, approved by the House of Commons shortly before Christmas, to produce all uncensored documents related to the detainee controversy. But if the government continues to ignore the motion, Ignatieff does not seem inclined to force a constitutional crisis over parliamentary privileges.

“We take this one step at a time,” he said. “I have no desire to create an atmosphere of crisis here.”