Prime Minister Stephen Harper is taking a firm position on two controversial issues at this year's G20 summit, with little hope of achieving a wider consensus with his fellow leaders on either front.

With two cabinet ministers in tow to hammer home his messages, Harper made it clear that a military strike is necessary against Syria; and that countries should be setting hard targets for reducing their debts, as Canada is now doing.

On Syria, an issue on everyone's lips though not on the summit agenda, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Thursday there was little prospect of common ground with all G20 nations. That's despite the addition of a meeting of approximately nine foreign ministers this week.

"We've got to be very realistic. Nobody is coming here anticipating success. This is fundamentally an economic forum," said Baird, who met with counterparts from France and Australia.

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper walks through the gardens of the Constantine Palace with Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, left, and Minister of Finance Jim Flaherty on Thursday prior to the G20 Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"Obviously when you have this type of crisis, with the significant use of chemical weapons in recent weeks, there's no doubt that casts a shadow. What we hoped to have was a good dialogue on these issues. But certainly I and the prime minister were realistic that at this forum we weren't likely to come to a conclusion."

Putin greeted Harper with a polite handshake outside of the sprawling Constantine Palace as the prime minister arrived for the start of the G20 meetings. But there was no lingering chit-chat, nor was there between Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama or French President Francois Hollande — all leaders who support a military strike against Syria.

On global economics — Harper's preferred topic — the prime minister has taken an equally hard line on the need for countries to rein in spending and set firm targets for reducing debt.

Harper said that the Canadian government is committing to a debt-to-GDP ratio of 25 per cent by 2021 and encouraged others to follow suit with their own targets — despite earlier G20 pledges this year to favour growth-oriented policies over austerity.

"It's important to have targets," Finance Minister Jim Flaherty told reporters in St. Petersburg. "It's important that people have goals and countries have goals at which to aim. I'm confident that we can accomplish this goal just as I'm confident we can balance the budget again in 2015."

The Canadian debt target seems to include some wiggle room. A year ago, the Finance Department forecast a ratio of 23.8 per cent by 2020-21 in a report on the aging population.

The debt-to-GDP ratio is projected to be 33.8 per cent for the current fiscal year, and was as low as 28.2 per cent just five years ago.

Fiscal prudence key

Flaherty framed the debt-to-GDP ratio target as a question of balance, rather than austerity.

"We are spending money on job creation and on job training, very substantial long-term infrastructure projects, so that's one part of the balance," Flaherty told reporters.




* Projected values for 2013-'14 and beyond. Source: Finance Canada

Flaherty stressed that following that 2008 crisis, the leaders of the world's developed countries decided to make the G20 "the primary economic forum for world decision-making."

"We need to maintain that," he said. "This is a world economic forum. It's fundamental that these kinds of decisions and discussions on important policy issues take place at G20 meetings."

Growth vs. austerity

How countries find the balance between austerity and job creation, as some struggle with staggering unemployment rates, is one of the dilemmas facing the G20. When finance ministers and central bankers met in July, they agreed to bolster growth before turning their attention to lowering deficits and debt burdens.

On the agenda

Host Russia has set three priorities for this week's G20 summit, all of which start with the word "growth" — through quality jobs and investments, trust and transparency and effective regulation.

It has proposed eight areas for discussion at meetings Thursday and Friday:

  • A framework for sustainable and balanced growth.
  • Jobs and employment.
  • International financial architecture reform.
  • Strengthened financial regulation.
  • Energy sustainability.
  • Development for all.
  • Enhanced multilateral trade.
  • Fighting corruption.

But Harper has consistently staked his ground in the debt-reduction camp. He was a key driver behind a commitment made at the Toronto G20 summit in 2010 to reduce debt around the world and has made deficit reduction his top domestic priority leading up to the 2015 federal election.

Governments aren't the only players weighing in.

Farah Mohamed, president and CEO of the (G)irls 20 Summit and an official civil society representative at the G20, said slashing social programs to keep deficits down will catch up with a country.

"That's going to have to come from somewhere, and it's usually from the social profit side, the NGOs that are delivering services," said Mohamed, whose group advocates for the economic empowerment of women and girls.

"If you cut and cut and cut, at some point society will suffer for that, whether it's in education, health care, social benefits — there are a whole bunch of factors that have to be managed when you're trying to reduce your deficit."

G20 members

(G8 countries in italics)

  • Argentina
  • Australia
  • Brazil
  • Canada
  • China
  • European Union
  • France
  • Germany
  • India
  • Indonesia
  • Italy
  • Japan
  • Mexico
  • Russia
  • Saudi Arabia
  • South Africa
  • Korea
  • Turkey
  • United Kingdom
  • United States

Flaherty said he can't predict whether Canada and Russia would end up agreeing on at least economic issues during the summit. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird just a day earlier criticized Russia for its "intractability" on the Syrian question.

Harper had a "pull-aside" meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in which the two leaders discussed progress on a bilateral free trade deal and the status of negotiations on a Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement or FIPA.

Harper also held a meeting with Ethiopian President Hailemariam Desalegn, who is chair of the African Union, to discuss development and bilateral relations.

U.S. President Barack Obama will be seeking support from other G20 leaders for a strike against Syria as a response to attack. Putin has said such action without United Nations sanction would violate international law.

With files from Alison Crawford and CBC News