Stephen Harper challenges G20 leaders to follow Canadian example

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – The word on everyone’s lips at this year’s G20 summit is Syria, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper is signalling his intention to keep his focus on global economics.

Even before Russian President and host Vladimir Putin greeted leaders at the opulent Constantine Palace on Thursday, Harper had already thrown a challenge to other G20 nations.

His government is committing to a debt-to-GDP ratio of 25 per cent by 2021 and encouraging others to follow suit with their own targets.

The Canadian 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 leaders decided back in November 2008 in Washington that the G20 would be the primary economic forum for world decision-making,” Finance Minister Jim Flaherty told reporters.

“We need to maintain that. 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.”

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.

“The other part of the balance is making sure you’re back to balanced budgets and addressing the debt-to-GDP ratio in the medium term.”

How countries can find that balance, as some struggle with staggering unemployment rates, is one of the dilemmas facing the G20, and 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.”

Within the G20, Canada has been urged countries to commit to hard targets for debt reduction. At a meeting of G20 finance ministers and central bank governors last April, it found support from Germany and the United Kingdom, but not from other big players such as the United States and Japan.

Russia has also been a supporter of fiscal consolidation — the reining in of stimulus and reduction in spending as the global economic outlook improves.

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.

Baird and other foreign ministers will conduct side meetings at the G20 to discuss the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons against its own people two weeks ago.

U.S. President Barack Obama will be seeking support fro