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Bill Curry, who covers finance in Ottawa, has the answer:
The short answer is six. It may turn out to be more. One would think there is an easy black and white answer to this one and yet the party leaders are offering conflicting information during this campaign. Conservative Leader Stephen Harper likes to say “We have a balanced budget.” Meanwhile NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau often accuse Mr. Harper of running eight deficits in a row.
Let’s break it down.
The issue comes down to how much weight one gives to various budget forecasts, which are an estimate of what will happen in the future.
Federal finances operate under a fiscal year that starts April 1 and ends March 31. That means the 2014-15 fiscal year is over, but we won’t know until later this year – when the final accounting figures are released – whether that year was officially in surplus or deficit. As The Globe reported in August, those figures are expected to be released by Finance Canada during the campaign.
The most recent Conservative budget projected that the 2014-15 fiscal year will show a seventh consecutive deficit. However economists say that could turn out to be a small surplus. We should find out the answer soon.
Now where does the claim of eight deficits come in?
The Conservatives promised to return to surplus in the current 2015-16 fiscal year. The April budget forecasted a $1.4-billion surplus. But the Parliamentary Budget Officer has said the year is on track for a $1-billion deficit due to slower-than-expected growth.
That means the opposition claims of eight straight budget deficits is based on six years of official results, plus the budget forecast of a seventh consecutive deficit and then the PBO’s projection that this year will also be in deficit.
Mr. Harper’s claim that the budget is balanced is based on two sources. First, the 2015 budget forecasted a balanced budget this year. Secondly, Finance Canada provides monthly updates on Ottawa’s bottom line. Over the first quarter of the fiscal year, Ottawa is running a $5-billion surplus, though the department cautions against reading too much into such early figures.
So there it is. The Conservatives have officially run six straight deficits and the projections for the next two years are too close to call as to whether they will be in surplus or deficit. There are no official final numbers to support the Conservative claim that Canada has a balanced budget, nor are there official final numbers to support opposition claims that Canada has run eight straight deficits.
Canadians are hearing contradictory statistics because party leaders are picking the forecasts that suit their political message.
Update: On Sept. 14, the federal government announced figures for the 2014-15 fiscal year that showed it had posted a surplus.