Canada’s economy is diverse enough to weather a slump in oil prices, Finance Minister Joe Oliver insisted Monday as one of his cabinet counterparts hinted the Conservatives may need their rainy-day fund to ensure a balanced budget.
The Tories’ reputation as economic stewards came under sustained opposition attack Monday during question period as the parties worked on refining their messages in advance of a federal election that’s less than nine months away.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair accused Prime Minister Stephen Harper of ignoring Canada’s manufacturing and retail sectors while focusing almost exclusively on trying to get Alberta’s oil to market via pipelines.
And Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau demanded to know just how much the recent plunge in oil prices has cost the federal treasury.
Canadian consumers and the country’s manufacturing sector will actually benefit from reduced energy costs, Oliver countered. And economic diversity will allow the Conservatives to keep their fiscal promises.
“We will honour our promises to four million Canadian families,” Oliver said, a reference to the government’s package of family-friendly tax cuts and benefits, including its controversial income-splitting scheme.
“And we will balance our budget.”
Earlier Monday, government House leader Peter Van Loan acknowledged that the government might have to use all or part of a $3-billion contingency fund in order to balance the books.
But that happens every year, Van Loan said: money left over from the reserve at the end of the fiscal year is always applied to the government’s bottom line.
Drastic spending cuts likely won’t be needed, added Treasury Board President Tony Clement, who urged Canadians not to panic about oil prices.
“We’ve got a great, resilient economy,” Clement said. “I’m not one of these people … whenever a bad number comes in, who lights his hair on fire and runs around in circles.”
Contingency funds are supposed to be for unexpected natural disasters, not political ones, said NDP finance critic Nathan Cullen, who urged the government to cancel the income-splitting plan instead.
“Mr. Harper has painted himself into a corner,” Cullen said.
“They spent the surplus before they had it, and they spent the surplus on an economic scheme in which only 15 per cent of Canadians receive any benefit, but 100 per cent of Canadians will have to pay for it.”
One of the country’s big financial institutions, TD Bank, also applied pressure to the Conservatives Monday, cutting its forecast for the country’s economy to just two per cent growth for 2015, down from a 2.3 per cent prediction in December.
The bank also warned that a further cut to interest rates could be coming in March.
The Bank of Canada unexpectedly trimmed its trend-setting interest rate last week to 0.75 per cent, a quarter point drop from the 1.0 per cent rate that had stood since September 2010.