Balancing act: federal leaders trade barbs over fitness as fiscal managers

Canada’s three main political leaders traded accusations of fiscal recklessness and promises of budget prudence Wednesday as the health of the economy dominated the federal election campaign for a third straight day.

OTTAWA — Canada’s three main political leaders traded accusations of fiscal recklessness and promises of budget prudence Wednesday as the health of the economy dominated the federal election campaign for a third straight day.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, trying to carve out a place for his party on the mantle of economic management, promised that a New Democrat government would deliver a balanced budget next year, no matter what.

Easier said than done, countered Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who suggested — even as he billed his party as a champion of fiscal responsibility — that balancing the books would likely be a matter of years.

All of which left Conservative Leader Stephen Harper saying what he’s been saying all along: the budget is balanced now, but won’t be for long if either the NDP or the Liberals form the next federal government.

Asked during a campaign event in London, Ont., whether an NDP government would run a deficit, Mulcair was unequivocal: “We are not entertaining any thought of that,” he said.

However, doing away with the Conservative income-splitting measure won’t produce enough extra revenue to cover his spending promises, Mulcair conceded.

He said he will soon detail how he will stay in the black while implementing new programs, including an ambitious promise of a million child-care spaces within eight years.

“We’re going to have a fully costed program,” Mulcair said. “Everybody will get to see what the NDP plan is every step of the way.”

His details will also have to cover a new promise of a $40-million tax credit for businesses investing in innovative research, which he promised Wednesday.

He will also have to fend off accusations that he’ll cut existing programs to pay for his campaign largesse — flames Andrew Thomson, a former Saskatchewan finance minister and a star NDP candidate running against Finance Minister Joe Oliver,fanned in a broadcast interview on Tuesday when he said spending cuts would be inevitable.

The party said Wednesday that Thomson was referring to a “wish list” of cuts the NDP submitted ahead of the 2015 budget, including government advertising, Senate costs and oil-company subsidies.

Trudeau was electioneering on the outskirts of Toronto, an area that looms as a key election battleground. He promised to give teachers a tax break on school supplies they buy with their own money — and dismissed the Conservative government’s claims that the federal budget is already balanced.

“We are in deficit now,” he said.

Balancing the books will be a Liberal priority, he added, but it won’t be easy. “How many years it takes to balance that budget is what we will be talking about in the coming days and weeks.”

Harper was in friendly territory in rural eastern Ontario, where he promised to spend $200 million over seven years to expand broadband Internet access for remote areas.

He stepped up his attacks on his main rivals as reckless spendthrifts.

“Justin Trudeau now says — now that he’s realized that budgets won’t balance themselves — he says he’s just given up trying, he’s just going to run deficits all the time anyway,” Harper said.

“And we know what the NDP plan is — they say they’ll balance the budget, but the real plan is they will bring in an avalanche of tax increases that in theory will balance the budget and in reality will wreck the economy.”

After six straight Conservative deficits, Harper is hardly in a position to offer fiscal advice, Trudeau retorted.

“You just have to look at recent history,” Trudeau said. “Conservatives run deficits. Liberals know how to grow the budget into balance.”

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