Chrétien enters election fray over deficit debate

Jean Chrétien says Conservative Leader Stephen Harper is conveniently ignoring the fact that Liberals — not Conservatives — did all the heavy lifting required to eliminate the federal deficit.

Jean Chrétien says Conservative Leader Stephen Harper is conveniently ignoring the fact that Liberals — not Conservatives — did all the heavy lifting required to eliminate the federal deficit.

"We balanced the books … and they forget to mention that," the former Liberal prime minister said in a brief interview Thursday.

Through the opening two weeks of the federal election campaign, Harper has repeatedly warned that the Liberals would drive the country back into a deficit with billions in unaffordable, reckless spending promises.

He reiterated the theme Thursday in response to Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion's promise to invest $70 billion over 10 years in infrastructure.

By contrast, Harper has painted himself and the Conservatives as models of fiscal rectitude.

But Chrétien suggested Harper has it backwards.

"We balanced the books, we took the heat for that and we were admired by a lot of people around the globe for that," he said on his way into a closed-door speech to a francophone business group in Ottawa.

"Now, some think the good old days might disappear — but don't blame me, I'm not there anymore."

When Chrétien took office in 1993, he inherited a $43-billion deficit left by the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney. By the time he retired in 2003, the deficit had been eliminated and the federal government was awash in huge annual surpluses.

After less than three years in office, Liberals contend, Harper has squandered the surpluses and left the country teetering on the brink of deficit. Moreover, Dion has repeatedly charged that Harper has presided over the slowest economic growth since 1990, when Mulroney was still in charge.

Although he said he's trying to stay out of the election debate, Chrétien left no doubt about his personal preference in the Oct. 14 vote.

"I'm a good Liberal and I will vote Liberal. I think it's the best party. We were doing very well when we were the government and [now] there's all sorts of problems that did not exist when we were the government."