'It's My Job, Stupid,' Canadians Cry As Economy Looms in Election Year

'Jobs, jobs, jobs" was the 1993 rallying cry that swept Jean Chretien's Liberal Party to a massive election victory and made him Canada's prime minister. Unfortunately, he may have to recycle the slogan.

With federal elections expected this year, pundits are debating the political impact of the nation's still-high unemployment rate, which hovers around 9.7 percent - down from 11.5 percent when Mr. Chretien took office.

Canada has created more than 700,000 jobs since 1993. "More jobs than Germany, France, Great Britain, and Italy together," Chretien told the Toronto Star recently. But 1.5 million Canadians are still out of work.

That could hurt him with voters like Shaun Griffiths, who has been trying for months to find work in Toronto as a computer specialist. "My question is 'jobs, jobs, jobs' where?" Mr. Griffiths asks. "I'm going to have to wait and see how things go this year to decide who I vote for. I'm tired of the promises."

If other voters share Griffiths's lack of confidence, Chretien's Liberal Party could be in danger - not of losing the election - but of losing its majority in Parliament.

Despite the many unemployed, economists say Canada's economy is healthier than it's been in years. Deficits have been slashed in both the provinces and federal government. The Canadian dollar is stronger, interest rates lower than in the US, and the economy is finally ready to produce jobs.

All these factors lead some analysts to believe that the negative political fallout from a sour economy and high unemployment that helped wipe out the Progressive Conservative Party in 1993 could be far less damaging to Chretien's Liberals in 1997.

"There's not a chance that the Liberals will be punished for breaking their pledge on jobs alone," says Conrad Winn, a pollster with Ottawa-based COMPAS. "But if the opposition parties manage to assemble all the incremental flaws of this government ... in a portrait of dishonesty and broken promises - then they're in trouble."

"Trouble" is relative, of course. The Liberal Party is in no danger of being defeated, due to the opposition's weakness. Rather, the danger for Chretien is that his party could fail to gain a majority and be forced to govern with a minority.

While the Liberals are far ahead of rivals in recent polls, Dr. Winn says support among those who say they would vote Liberal is soft. Take Wally McClellan, a traditional Liberal voter who finally found a $12-an-hour job after being out of work for several years. "I feel great to be working again. But I'm not giving Mr. Chretien any of the credit. It was the newspaper that got me my job. Not the government."

It appears the Liberals will be able to gain from the same set of economic pluses that helped President Clinton sweep to a second term. Here the key question is: "Are you better off now than you were in 1993?"

Economists say the answer for most Canadians is a definite "yes." "After a long period of adjustment, retrenchment, and slow growth, the Canadian economy is poised for liftoff," says Ruth Getter, chief economist at Toronto Dominion Bank. While unemployment is high, she expects the jobless rate to drop below 9 percent by the end of 1998. Add to that signs of a resurging housing market and a return of consumer spending, and the economy begins to look reasonably good.

Deficit-cutting was a key issue in 1993 - and that is one promise Chretien has delivered on. Last summer, Canada became a net lender to the world for the first time in 11 years. Seven out of 10 provinces balanced their budgets, and even the federal government seems poised to wipe out its deficit by 2000.

"We elected politicians who said they would do something about the deficits. And for the most part they have - and I think they'll be rewarded for that," says Michael Bliss, a historian at the University of Toronto.

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