Members of Parliament voted today to hold four days of intense pre-budget consultation meetings, conceding a degree of urgency to hearing from the public ahead of the new Liberal government's first federal budget.
The finance committee agreed to hear from "roughly" 89 witnesses over a period of four days from Feb. 16 to 19, when MPs return to Ottawa after spending the second week of February in their ridings.
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In the past, the finance committee would have held a number of meetings over the course of several weeks beginning in September.
But this year, the committee's work was delayed in part due to the timing of the last general election and some procedural disagreement with the Bloc Québécois.
"Look, we're running out of time as it comes to … the budget soon being prepared," said Liberal MP Wayne Easter, who was elected chair of the finance committee. "We're rapidly running out of time."
"We need to giddy-up," said Conservative MP Phil McColeman, echoing Easter's remarks on Thursday.
The decision to hold marathon hearings comes as the Liberals are under increasing pressure from the Official Opposition, as well as the country's mayors and premiers, to deliver on spending promises they made during the recent election campaign.
"We'll go around the clock," said Opposition finance critic Lisa Raitt as she pressed the Liberals for a budget date.
Liberals to table budget 'expeditiously'
While Finance Minister Bill Morneau has yet to say when the Liberal government will deliver its first budget, it is widely expected to be tabled sometime in March.
But with the House of Commons scheduled to sit for only two weeks in March, the government will have a small window to do so.
'We will get to the budget as expeditiously as we can, recognizing our challenging economic environment.' – Bill Morneau, finance minister
"We will get to the budget as expeditiously as we can, recognizing our challenging economic environment," Morneau said during question period today.
Morneau and other senior government officials will be among the dozens of witnesses called to testify when the pre-budget marathon hearings get underway.
The finance minister said the government has received some 3,500 submissions from Canadians, including various organizations and other interest groups.
The committee also elected Conservative Ron Liepert and NDP MP Guy Caron as vice-chairs.
The House of Commons is scheduled to sit the weeks of March 7 and March 21.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will be in Washington on March 10 for a state dinner with U.S. President Barack Obama — the first White House state dinner in 19 years for a Canadian leader.
Surplus or deficit?
Earlier in the day, Morneau defended the government's balance sheet after Raitt tabled a motion calling on the Liberals to justify how they "plunged" Canadians into a $3-billion deficit after inheriting a $1-billion surplus from the previous Conservative government.
"Cherry picking data to use as a political football devalues the work of our proud public servants," Morneau told the Commons Thursday morning.
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While Morneau acknowledged there was a surplus posted for a period of six months in 2015, he attributed it to "one-time" factors such as the sale of General Motors shares.
Morneau said the government's fiscal update in November — which was produced by the same public servants the Opposition and all MPs hold in such "high esteem" — took into account the falling price of crude oil and a weak global economy.
"This non-partisan analysis confirms that circumstances had changed and that predictions made by the previous government in their budget were off by about $6 billion," Morneau said.
"Make no mistake, the government of Canada will post a deficit for the 2015-2016 fiscal year."
Raitt accused the Liberals of "intentionally" misleading Canadians.
"A return to surplus is not a licence to spend recklessly," Raitt said as she quoted the late finance minister Jim Flaherty.
"I hope members of this government will reflect on what I've said and the words of Jim Flaherty, and think twice next time when they rise in their seats and intentionally mislead the House on facts," she said.
The Liberals vowed during the election campaign to keep deficits under $10 billion each year for the first two years of their mandate — a promise they backed away from after taking office.