Harper vows 'modest' cuts but offers few details

Stephen Harper says a Conservative government would make only "modest" cuts in spending to eliminate the deficit more quickly than forecast in its March 22 budget.

Conservative leader says 'high-spending' Liberal platform similar to Trudeau era

Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks at a dairy farm, Sunday April 10, 2011, in Acton Vale, Que. Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper says a Conservative government would make only "modest" cuts in spending to eliminate the deficit more quickly than forecast in its March 22 budget.

"The operational savings we are looking for are modest," Harper said during a campaign stop in Acton Vale, Que., Sunday morning.

"Out of $80 billion of operating costs over three years, we're going to shave five per cent off of that," he said.

Harper was challenged by reporters to provide details of spending cuts needed to speed up the deficit reduction while paying for new tax cuts announced during the campaign, but wouldn't offer specifics.

"I have told you before, a couple of the areas we're going to focus on. This is what people expect of government. To keep operating costs under control and to continue to deliver services," he said, adding that the cuts would not affect "vital" programs.

"Anybody who says you can't find money in Ottawa without cutting vital services to people simply is living in a fantasy world. That's not how government works. There are inefficiencies and it is your job to constantly find them. That's what we have been doing and that's what we'll continue to do," Harper said.

On Saturday, Harper said a Conservative government would cut operational expenses by attrition, noting that 80,000 federal civil servants are set to retire in the next few years, and by finding efficiencies in the government's computer systems.

Michael Ignatieff accused Harper of hiding "an $11-billion hole" in his platform by not detailing his spending cuts. Harper hit back at the Liberal leader's comments Sunday.

"You want to talk about fantasy costs, Michael Ignatieff has made in this campaign $28 billion-plus of promises that are not contained in his platform," Harper said, pointing to an HST deal for Quebec, bridge repairs in Montreal, a national drug program, and money for "professional arenas" and a "high-speed train."

Ignatieff has said the Liberals would be open to contributing funds for an arena project in Quebec City, but last week said though he favours high-speed train service between Ontario and Quebec, the country can't afford it now.

Harper defends F-35 purchase

Harper also stood behind his party's decision to buy 65 F-35 joint strike fighter jets, saying a memorandum of understanding with the manufacturer means Canada will be shielded from any rise in research and development costs.

"On the F-35s, I think we've been clear: there have been detailed briefings from the department of national defence on this, there's a memorandum of understanding that's posted (online). We are sheltered from research and development costs," Harper said.

A report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office last week raised new concerns about the costs of the fighter jets. The Conservative government had said the pricetag for each jet would be $75 million, with total annual maintenance costs of $200 million to $300 million.

Harper told reporters in French that the agreements mean the U.S. will pay extra development costs and Canada will take delivery of the planes at a fixed price.

The GAO report says development costs will push the price of the jets above $120 million (U.S.) each, and others have estimated the costs are higher. Canada's parliamentary budget watchdog reported this year the costs of the jets over their 30-year lifecycle will be billions more than the figures released by the Department of Defence.

Harper said Canadian industry is already benefiting from the jet contract.

"This is a good deal for the country, the fantasy is on the other side. That somehow they're going to come up with some airplane out of thin air and they don't even know what airplane, they're still going to buy planes they say but they don't know airplane and they don't have any agreement," he said.

The name of a former Liberal prime minister was evoked when Harper was asked why he didn't refer to Pierre Trudeau by name when he compared Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff's promises to Liberal policies of the 1970s.

"The comparison I'm obviously making is the fact that we all know, in 1972 to 1974 when we had a Liberal government that relied on the NDP for ongoing support, all they did was spend money," leading to high deficits, Harper said.

"Mr. Trudeau has passed away some time ago … I think it is probably a bit unfair to bash somebody in the grave. He's not here to defend himself," Harper continued. "As you know, Mr. Trudeau did have a different philosophy of government, a high-spending philosophy, a centralizing philosophy, and that's not the philosophy of this (Conservative) government."