Canada Conservatives pledge surpluses, jobs data a challenge

By Julie Gordon
Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks at Laurel Steel on a campaign stop in Burlington Ontario, September 1, 2015. REUTERS/Fred Thornhill/Files

By Julie Gordon

RICHMOND, British Columbia (Reuters) - Canada's ruling Conservatives on Friday pledged to run a series of modest budget surpluses if they retain power in an Oct. 19 election, seeking to portray themselves as the best economic stewards in a race that looks too tight to call.

But the pledge came the same day data showed Canada's unemployment rate rose to its highest level since February 2014, adding to a string of challenges for Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the final days of his campaign.

Recent polls indicate Harper could well lose power after almost a decade in office focused on cutting taxes, introducing tougher sentences for crime and trying to support the energy industry.

The Conservatives - who say opposition parties will wreck the economy if they take office - predicted surpluses of C$1.67 billion ($1.29 billion) in 2016/17, C$1.42 billion in 2017/18, C$947.8 million in 2018/19 and C$2.41 billion on 2019/20.

"The wrong decisions now ... on taxes, on spending, on deficits, will cause real economic damage, everywhere in this country, for years to come," said Harper.

"If we don't get our economy right, nothing else will matter," he told a rally in British Columbia to launch the party's full election platform.

The opposition Liberals and New Democrats say Harper has grossly mismanaged the economy.

Data released by Statistics Canada showed that while the economy added 12,100 jobs in September, the unemployment rate unexpectedly hit 7.1 percent as more people sought work.

Harper points to the creation of 1.3 million new jobs since the depth of the financial crisis, but the number of unemployed has climbed on his watch.

"We have today 300,000 more unemployed than there were when the crisis hit in 2008. Stephen Harper has the worst job creation record of any prime minister since the Second World War. You deserve better," Thomas Mulcair, leader of the New Democrats, said in Montreal.

The New Democrats, who are promising to balance the budget, also released their full platform on Friday, promising to kick-start the economy and create jobs.

Separately, a Bank of Canada survey revealed tepid overall business sentiment.

The Liberals, who currently enjoy a narrow poll lead, are proposing to run three years of budget deficits to fund infrastructure investment.

"The Conservative platform released today confirms Harper has not changed. He has run out of ideas," said John McCallum of the Liberals, a former federal minister of national revenue.

(Writing by David Ljunggren; Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson and Tom Brown)