GATINEAU, Que. - Prime Minister Stephen Harper is suggesting the federal deficit - already pegged at $85 billion over the next five years - could get bigger if that's what it takes to fight the recession.

Harper told a gathering of Quebec mayors Thursday that Canada can afford an unprecedented flurry of infrastructure spending because of its relative fiscal strength compared to other countries.

"Our deficits will be large, but they will be temporary," Harper said. "In fact, in the short term they will be as large as they have to be, to help us weather the recession.

"As a country we can afford it. But only if these deficits are temporary and our stimulus spending ends when the recession ends."

He said Canada's debt-to-GDP ratio is the envy of other developed countries, and that the nation can afford a flurry of spending to help escape the current economic slump.

The Conservative government has projected a $34-billion deficit for 2009-10 and an $85-billion shortfall by 2013.

However, the parliamentary budget officer, Kevin Page, has warned that the Conservative forecast is unduly rosy and that the actual size of the fiscal hole is $9 billion larger than the government forecast.

Harper made the announcement in a speech in which he outlined a multibillion-dollar infrastructure transfer to municipalities, promised in the recent federal budget.

He urged mayors, premiers and the federal government to work quickly to get construction projects going. Because, he noted, the munificence of stimulus spending is only temporary.

"These billions of dollars will not be available forever. The stimulus money outlined in our economic action plan will expire at the end of the recession."