OTTAWA — Questions about who is best to manage Canada's economy are set to come to the forefront of the federal election campaign this week, with a key report on the country's books being released and a leaders' debate centred on the topic scheduled for Thursday.
The party leaders were gearing up Sunday for a final tabulation by the Finance Department of year-end figures for fiscal 2014-15.
The fiscal update being released Monday could show the government was on track to balance the budget by the end of March.
Last month, the department reported a $5-billion surplus for the April-June quarter, though Harper's opponents said that data was not up to date.
The federal government predicted in last spring's budget that it would reduce the deficit to around $2 billion for 2014-15, and said Ottawa would see a small budget surplus for this fiscal year.
But the collapse in oil prices and international fiscal turmoil raised doubts about those forecasts.
Stephen Harper played up his party's economic strengths at a rally in the Ottawa area Sunday, driving home his message that the Conservatives are the only stewards of the country's finances.
He also warned that, given continued economic uncertainty around the globe, Canada needs to be prudent and adjust its fiscal plans accordingly.
"Although we predicted a surplus for $2 billion, we're already at $5 billion, so we're always cautious,'' Harper said, referring to the 2015-16 year.
He said the Liberals and New Democrats would only drive up taxes and set Canada on a path of never-ending deficits.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, whose party has campaigned on a commitment to balance the government's books by 2019, enlisted the aid Sunday of former prime minister Jean Chretien, who harkened back to the days when his Liberal government boasted massive surpluses.
Chretien praised what he called the honest approach of the Trudeau Liberals — that of borrowing money in the short term to prop up Canada's crumbling infrastructure.
"It's not spending, it's investment,'' Chretien said to cheers and applause from supporters.
"To borrow money for food is bad. But to borrow money for a house is good.''
Chretien also took shots at the NDP, accusing their leader of being dishonest with Canadians about his ability to balance the books.
"You know he's making promises in the billions of dollars, but he will not have a deficit,'' Chretien said of Mulcair's campaign pledges.
"Come on. Canadians, Mr. Mulcair, know how to add.''
The NDP is hoping to frame this week's campaign around health ahead of the leader's debate Thursday in Calgary.
While campaigning Sunday in Vancouver, where his party hopes to make gains on Oct. 19, Mulcair announced he would spend $1.8 billion over four years on health care for seniors.
The party said more health-related announcements were expected throughout the week.
Mulcair also played up his party's other promises, including bringing back eligibility for old age security from 67 to 65 and lifting 200,000 low-income seniors out of poverty by increasing the guaranteed income supplement.
"But it's not just financial health that matters. Canadian seniors need access to quality health care, where they need it, when they need it,'' Mulcair said.
Mulcair also criticized Trudeau for openly advocating deficit spending.
"This is where Justin Trudeau and I are very different,'' he said.
"Unlike Justin Trudeau's reckless promise of multi-year deficits, the NDP will balance the budget and improve seniors' care by asking corporations to pay their fair share. Justin Trudeau simply won't.''
The trial this week of a former Harper senior adviser accused of influence peddling could also cast a pall over the campaign.
Bruce Carson goes on trial Monday in Ottawa on one charge of influence peddling related to his work with a company that was trying to sell water-filtration systems to First Nation reserves.
The Carson case follows on the heels of the trial of Sen. Mike Duffy, which forced the Tories off of their message at the beginning of the campaign in August.
Carson has pleaded not guilty to the influence peddling charge, as well as other accusations of illegal lobbying.
Harper's campaign heads west Monday to a rally in Kamloops, B.C., while Trudeau takes his campaign to Toronto where he will meet with a group representing retired Canadians.
Mulcair will continue campaigning in British Columbia before heading to Alberta.
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