A Conservative-dominated parliamentary committee voted against a process Monday that would have likely called on Finance Minister Joe Oliver to testify in public about the state of Canada's finances amid a troubled economy.
Before Monday's closed-door meeting, opposition members of the finance committee had been urging the Harper government to study a recent report that said Ottawa was on track to run a budget deficit this year.
Last week, the parliamentary budget office released an analysis based on downgraded Bank of Canada projections that showed Ottawa was headed for a $1-billion shortfall in 2015-16.
The budget watchdog's calculation raised doubts about the ruling Conservatives' long-standing pledge to balance the election-year books — including their $1.4-billion surplus projection for this year.
The freshly crunched numbers were released after the struggling economy contracted over the first four months of 2015, a recoil triggered by the collapse in world oil prices and the failure of Canada's non-energy sectors to pick up the slack.
Some experts have said Canada has slipped into recession, though that remains the subject of heated debate.
Last week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said his government was "well ahead" of its own forecast for a balanced budget this year — despite Canada's economic struggles to start 2015.
Harper pointed to the data for the first two months of the fiscal year, which show a $3.95-billion surplus thanks to a $1-billion boost from a one-time asset sale of General Motors shares.
Oliver has insisted the government is "very comfortable" it will produce a budgetary surplus this year, citing forecasts from experts — including the Bank of Canada — that say the economy will rebound later this year.
"It definitely would be interesting to hear the finance minister actually explain how he can claim there will be a balanced budget," New Democrat MP Guy Caron said after Monday's 15-minute committee meeting.
"We're going into an election this fall. I think Canadians are actually entitled to know exactly where we stand in terms of our economic situation, and right now it's clear that the Conservatives aren't interested in bringing the light to this."
Last week, Liberal finance critic Scott Brison called on the government to back up its renewed balanced-budget promise by releasing the Department of Finance's latest projections to the committee.
"Ministers of finance have a responsibility during times of uncertainty of providing information to Canadians," Brison said after the meeting.
"The Conservatives have gone from wanting to run on the economy to running from the economy."
But Conservative MP and committee chairman James Rajotte said it's important to look at hard numbers when trying to predict the future, rather than putting so much energy into following ever-shifting economic forecasts.
Rajotte pointed to the $3.95-billion surplus the government books showed for the first two months of the fiscal year, though he acknowledged it was due in large part to the asset sale.
"So, to predict the next 10 months, it's a lot like predicting the weather — it's a very challenging thing to do," Rajotte said.
"The Bank of Canada consistently changes its projections depending on economic circumstances, as does the parliamentary budget officer, as do governments around the world.
"So, speaking for myself personally, I don't know how helpful it is for us to continually debate what it will be then as opposed to actually debating what it is."
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