OTTAWA – Justin Trudeau set out to build some Liberal campaign momentum Thursday with a big-ticket, multibillion-dollar infrastructure plan – and an animated Stephen Harper spent much of his day trying to tear him down.
Trudeau’s campaign event in Oakville, Ont., which featured heavy equipment and a small army of supporters clad in reflective vests and Liberal-red hard hats, was framed as a major plank in the party’s platform – one designed to both stimulate a faltering economy and shore up the country’s crumbling roads, bridges and transit systems.
The plan – a staggering $125 billion over 10 years, twice what’s currently slated for infrastructure upgrades across Canada – would be financed by three years of “modest deficits,” followed by a balanced budget in 2019.
“Government has a responsibility to act decisively and for the public good. Canada’s economic growth was made possible by building ambitiously,” Trudeau said.
“We must do so again if we are to transform our transit and transportation systems, create more livable communities, and ensure that we adapt to a changing climate.”
That willingness to leave the budget out of balance has separated Trudeau from Harper and – in a surprising role-reversal – NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, who both say they would bring in balanced budgets immediately.
An energized-looking Harper, perhaps relieved that the incessant barrage of Mike Duffy questions appeared to have eased, mocked Trudeau’s “modest deficits” message during a boisterous speech in Hamilton that at times seemed more standup routine than stemwinder.
“I guess it turns out the budget doesn’t balance itself,” a giddy Harper jeered – a reference to Trudeau’s now-infamous sound bite in which he suggests strong economic growth is the best way to ensure healthy books.
“He’ll run, he says, a modest deficit, a tiny deficit, so small you can hardly see the deficit,” he said, making a teeny-weeny hand gesture that sent Internet meme-makers into a tizzy.
“And only for three years, three deficits, three modest little deficits.”
While doubling current federal infrastructure funding, Trudeau said, any shortfalls in the federal treasury over the next two years would be capped at $10 billion per year.
Harper couldn’t help himself.
“Mr. Trudeau has made tens of billions of dollars of spending promises… he has no idea what he’s talking about when it comes to these things,” he said earlier in the day, during an event where he announced plans to ease the recognition of foreign credentials.
“That’s why you could be sure that his small deficits will become large deficits and would get Canada into the same pickle of high taxes and program cuts that we had under the last Liberal government.”
The Conservative government’s own infrastructure program was three times higher than that of its Liberal predecessor, he added.
Harper promised some modest new spending of his own, pledging $40 million to a loan program to help new Canadians while they complete the foreign credential recognition process. The funding would be over five years, on top of the $35 million already allotted for it in this year’s budget.
At an event in Toronto, Mulcair appeared to back away from a pledge last year to restore up to $36 billion in provincial health care transfers – one that has taken a back seat to other pricey campaign commitments within a balanced budget.
Mulcair insisted Thursday that an NDP government would make it a “top priority” to honour his health funding commitment, but acknowledged it’s not likely to happen right away.
The NDP leader first made the promise last summer in what his party called a “historic” speech to the Canadian Medical Association. He castigated Stephen Harper’s government for its plan to reduce the rate of increase in health transfers to the provinces starting in 2017, a move he said would rob the provinces of up to $36 billion over 10 years.
“An NDP government would use any budget surplus to cancel the proposed cuts to health care,” he said at the time.
However, since then Mulcair has said little about that promise while he’s added a number of others – including a $5-billion national child care program – that would apparently take priority.
“We had said that any surplus, because Mr. Harper had been promising surpluses, would be dedicated in our case first and foremost to avoiding that (transfer reduction),” Mulcair said at the campaign office of his star candidate Andrew Thomson, a former Saskatchewan finance minister.
“Now it looks pretty obvious that there won’t be any, but during that two-year period our health minister will have as a top priority to get new health accords.”
The New Democrats are touting Thompson’s record of balancing his province’s budget in 2006 and 2007 after Mulcair said unequivocally this week that an NDP government would balance its first budget.
It’s all made for a dizzying U-turn on the Canadian political spectrum: the Liberals openly acknowledging a plan to spend billions and run deficits, and the New Democrats insisting they have found religion when it comes to the merits of balanced books.
Harper, when asked Thursday how he plans to deal with the possibility of a decision on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline coming during the campaign, had a simple message: if it gets rejected, don’t blame us.
U.S. President Barack Obama has never linked any particular Conservative policy to the decision-making process on the multibillion-dollar project, which would pump bitumen from Western Canada’s oilsands to the U.S. Gulf Coast, he said.
Obama is widely expected to nix the project, largely over environmental concerns. Some people close to the proposal believe the U.S. decision on its fate, stalled for years, could be imminent, and could come before voters head to the polls Oct. 19.
A rejection in the middle of the campaign, which would likely make headlines on both sides of the border, would be unwelcome news for Harper, who has championed the project as a major boon to Canada’s economic fortunes.
On top of that, political opponents have indicated they intend to lay the blame for a failed Keystone XL squarely bid at the feet of the Conservative leader.
“Let me be very clear on this: President Obama and the administration has never linked their Keystone decision to a particular Canadian government policy,” Harper said when asked whether Obama has ever suggested he move faster on climate change.
“They have not asked for a particular government policy in order to approve that pipeline. That is the fact. Mr. Obama has indicated to me he will make that decision based on what he believes are the best interests of the United States.”