Wave of economic discontent sinks Trudeau in popularity poll

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Hundreds of farmers wheeled into a small town in central Canada recently on tractors and manure spreaders. After a two-hour protest action in front of the local bank, they convinced the manager to return the equipment he had confiscated from a financially pressed farmer.

The highly unusual decision, greeted as a major victory by farm groups, is the latest development in a mounting wave of discontent that has Canadians across the country vocally demanding quick changes in the economic situation.

Behind the surge of middle-class anger are the twin irritants of record-high interest rates and rising unemployment, both factors of Canada's currently sluggish economy.

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Public frustration has taken on an air of crisis because of an increase in farm and business bankruptcies and fears that tens of thousands of Canadians might lose their homes as a result of sharply higher mortgage payments.

On top of this the government of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau announced an economic program last month that displeased many of the country's most powerful interest groups and served only to heighten anti-Ottawa feelings.

Observers long accustomed to Canada's calm, peaceful approach to even the most vexing internal problems are startled by the strident tone underlying the current unrest.

''There's a crazy kind of resentment out there,'' said Pat Johnston of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, a Toronto-based group that speaks for small firms. ''The emotion is so volatile.''

Miss Johnston's group is spearheading a growing coalition of business, labor, professional, homeowner, and other organizations from across the country, all demanding that the federal government throw out its Nov. 12 budget message and start over to draft a new economic program.

Despite earlier hints from federal spokesmen that the budget might contain measures to help hard-pressed homeowners and small businesses, the budget in fact offered only very limited aid programs for these groups.

''It was a total disappointment to Canadians looking for relief from Ottawa, '' said Lloyd MacPhail, finance minister in the provincial government of Prince Edward Island.

Additionally, the budget signaled an exhaustive attempt by Ottawa to crack down on a wide range of tax loopholes heavily exploited by Canadians in almost all walks of life, including many of importance to investors.

The tax reform program sent stock markets reeling and galvanized a wide spectrum of opposition against the federal government. Facing unrelenting pressure in the press and Parliament, the Trudeau administration has already taken the unusual step of altering some budget measures and has promised to consider wholesale revisions.

For Trudeau, who has been absorbed for months with the problem of writing a new constitution, the incipient middle-class revolt over economic policies appears to have been a rude awakening.

Earlier this month, a Gallup poll showed that Conservative opposition leader and former Prime Minister Joe Clark had for the first time in a year overtaken Trudeau in popularity with voters.

The surprising poll results gave Clark 42 percent of voter preference, compared to only 38 percent for Trudeau (with the balance going to a third party leader). There is no doubt that economic woes are behind this turnabout in popularity.

Discontent has focused mostly on Canadian government-set interest rates, which have climbed in concert with US rates in the past year.

Unlike in the US, however, the terms of Canadian home mortgages have in recent years shortened to five, three, or one years. As a result, many Canadians were forced to renew their mortgages during the past year when interest charges soared as high as 22 percent, causing financial hardship to thousands of homeowners.

Last month, about 60,000 workers, homeowners, and farmers mounted the largest protest march ever held in front of Parliament to complain about Ottawa's interest-rate policies.

Labor leaders have threatened further action, including ''civil disobedience'' if Ottawa remains firm, and disruptions by farmers, who recently blocked a major highway for part of a day in addition to their bank protest, seem on the increase.

''If something isn't done soon, it's just gonna snowball,'' said Jack Hale, an official of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, a provincial farm group.

The recent drop in interest rates has given Trudeau a breathing space, but the rest of the economic news continues gloomy. Almost 1 million Canadians are out of jobs in a workforce of 11.8 million, inflation is running at more than 12 percent, and the economy has hit one of the deepest troughs in 30 years.

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