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Debt-cutting, Syria action on Harper's G20 agenda

Baird holds out little hope for consensus on military strike

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 5/9/2013 (2402 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Prime Minister  Stephen Harper has a polite conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin as Harper arrives at the G20 Summit  Thursday in  St. Petersburg,  Russia.


Prime Minister Stephen Harper has a polite conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin as Harper arrives at the G20 Summit Thursday in St. Petersburg, Russia.

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- 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 a military strike is necessary against Syria; and 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.

"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."

Russian President Vladimir Putin's press secretary said earlier in the day his country still did not feel there was credible evidence the regime of Bashar Assad had used chemical weapons against its own people. Putin views any military action without UN sanction a violation of international law.

Baird and Harper have had sharp words for Russia over several months, decrying its support for Assad and its blocking of stronger action at the United Nations.

Putin greeted Harper with a polite handshake outside 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 Franßois 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.

The Conservative government is promising a debt-to-GDP ratio of 25 per cent by 2021. A year ago, the Finance Department forecast a ratio of 23.8 per cent by 2020-21 in a report on the aging population.

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 said.

"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.

But on this front, too, Canada can't count on broad support. When finance ministers and central bankers met in July, they agreed to bolster growth before turning their attention to lowering deficits and debt burdens. Ironically, Putin is one of the few other voices in favour of stronger action on fiscal consolidation.

"A common understanding of the necessity to find an optimal balance between fiscal consolidation and support of growth has emerged in hot discussions," Putin said Thursday.

Back in Canada, the opposition was unimpressed with Harper's promise of debt reduction. Liberal deputy leader Ralph Goodale said the largest debt reduction came between 1993 and 2005, when his party slashed the debt in half from nearly 70 per cent of GDP.


-- The Canadian Press


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