OTTAWA — The opposition parties want to call Finance Minister Joe Oliver before a parliamentary committee for an emergency meeting to discuss the weakening of the Canadian economy and the government’s plans to return to a balanced budget.
In July 23 letter to Conservative MP James Rajotte, chair of the Commons finance committee, NDP finance critic Nathan Cullen noted that a recent report by the Parliamentary Budget Officer revised the Tories’ budget projections and calculated the federal government would post a $1 billion deficit in 2015-2016. The Conservatives’ spring budget projected a $1.4 billion surplus.
Cullen wrote that, aside from the “significant deviation” from the budget projection, the Canadian economy has shrunk in four consecutive months and there are 200,000 more unemployed Canadians now than before the last recession in 2008.
“I believe it is important for parliamentarians to examine the impacts of this dramatic shift in government finances and the weakening Canadian economy,” Cullen wrote.
“In particular, it is my belief that it would be appropriate for the Minister of Finance to appear before the committee ‘to explain the reasons for the projected deficit and present a plan for a return to balanced budgets’ as suggested by the recently passed Balanced Budget Act.”
The Tories passed new legislation this spring, the Federal Balanced Budget Act, that aimed to limit the government’s ability to run deficits. The new law states that if the government tables a budget that posts a deficit, or if a deficit is posted in the public accounts that wasn’t forecast, the minister must appear at committee within 30 House sitting days to present a plan, with timelines, to return to a balanced budget. The law doesn’t apply to fiscal updates or Parliamentary Budget Officer reports.
The Bank of Canada recently suggested that Canada is in a technical recession — defined as two quarters of negative growth.
But Oliver and the prime minister insist the government is not about to post a deficit.
At a press conference in Regina, Prime Minister Stephen Harper acknowledged there have been some discussions about whether the Conservatives’ small surplus would hold up, given the current numbers.
“The department of finance believes it will,” Harper told reporters. “It’s more than speculating it will. We have the first two months of data for this fiscal year and we are well ahead of track, we’ve run a significant surplus, $4 billion in the first two months of this fiscal year,” he said.
“Our budgeting is very conservative and we are well on track to realize a balanced budget this year,” the prime minister added.
Harper’s director of communications Rob Nicol also noted this week that the Tories had included room in the budget — $1 billion in contingency cash — to account for continuing weakness in the global economy.
In a July 22 letter to the Finance Minister, the Liberals’ finance critic Scott Brison also called upon Oliver to testify at committee and explain why thinks the Bank of Canada and the Parliamentary Budget Officer “are wrong.”
The Parliamentary Budget Officer used projections from the Bank of Canada and the Finance Minister’s own department to model for government revenues and expenses, Brison said.
“Canadians deserve honest answers and information from their government,” he wrote.
Oliver should make his department’s updated projections on expected revenues and expenditures public, Brison added.
Cullen said he and his two other NDP colleagues on the finance committee also want to hear from Finance Canada officials, as well as the Parliamentary Budget Officer and the Bank of Canada.
According to the House of Commons’ rules, the chair of a committee is bound to call a meeting within five days of receiving a letter by three members requesting one, provided that 48 hours notice is given. That means a meeting should be held next week.
However, the rule would not apply if an election were called. The federal election is scheduled for Oct. 19.
Oliver’s deputy chief of staff John Penner, told the Huffington Post Canada on Friday, however, that the finance minister had yet to receive an official request for the committee clerk.
Read Cullen's full letter below:
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