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Canadian Premier Calls Oct. 25 Vote : Election: Campbell labels jobs, opportunity key priorities as she sets date. Economy is expected to be the central issue.

September 09, 1993|MARY WILLIAMS WALSH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TORONTO — Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell on Wednesday called a national election for Oct. 25, giving voters here the chance to extend--or cut off--the mandate of a government whose economic measures have included such sweeping but unpopular fare as the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The fall election will pit Campbell's Progressive Conservatives, which have formed Canada's government since 1984, against the opposition Liberal Party, led by Jean Chretien. Several smaller parties, whose platforms range from Quebec sovereignty to social democracy, will also field candidates.

As in the United States, the central issue of the campaign will be the economy. Canadian voters are recession-weary, and they evince an overwhelming jadedness about politics, politicians and political slogans. The unemployment rate here is stuck at more than 11%. And the government's own statistics agency says that a third of all two-parent families in Canada were receiving unemployment benefits in 1991, the most recent year for which figures are available.

"Jobs and greater economic opportunity are the key priorities for Canadians in the 1990s," Campbell told a news conference. "We want to get rid of the deficit because it is a killer of jobs . . . a killer of social programs."

The Conference Board of Canada, an independent research organization, says that the country is "adrift in a listless recovery," with little hope of improvement in 1994. And a recent poll found that one Canadian in four fears that a family member will be thrown out of work in the coming year.

Against this dreary backdrop, the Progressive Conservatives are hoping to triumph at the polls with promises of fiscal responsibility and economic orthodoxy. It will be up to Campbell--a former justice minister who became prime minister only in June, when her predecessor Brian Mulroney resigned--to convince skeptical Canadians that continued budget-cutting and laissez-faire trade policies will eventually bear fruit in the form of jobs, growth and productivity.

Campbell, a 46-year-old lawyer from British Columbia, promises to levy no new taxes and says she will balance the budget within five years. She offers little in the form of new spending programs.

The Liberals, meanwhile, are offering to put Canadians back to work through a traditional program of government-led economic stimuli. Chretien, a 59-year-old Quebec Francophone, talks of renegotiating the controversial North American Free Trade Agreement; "kick-starting" the economy by spending more than $700 million on infrastructure; loosening credit, and assigning deficit reduction a lower place on the national agenda.

"When we will be in power, it will be like the good old days. . . . Canadians will be working," Chretien told reporters.

Chretien has said he wants to create a "youth corps" to employ young Canadians and to restructure a hated value-added tax that the Conservatives put on the books.

It is unclear at this point which message--or which messenger--Canadians will select.

On a personal level, polls have repeatedly shown that Canadians prefer Campbell. She is younger than Chretien and comes across as brisk and peppery on the rostrum. At the same time, she manages to exude an air of compassion on social issues.

And Campbell has had the important advantage of being able to "campaign" all summer without seeming to be campaigning, by attending barbecues, fairs and folk dances as prime minister.

Perhaps most important of all, Campbell is relatively new to federal politics and is therefore not closely associated in the public mind with Conservative policies and the short-term miseries they have caused.

A Gallup Canada poll showed that in late August, 42% of Canadians thought Campbell would make the best prime minister, up 10 percentage points since a similar poll was conducted in June.

Chretien, meanwhile, was named as the best prime minister by only 21% of those surveyed, down three points since June. The leaders of Canada's other main parties were each named by less than 10% of the surveyed population.

As an individual, Chretien suffers from a perception that he is "yesterday's man." He is a white male who was first elected to Parliament in 1963 and who served as a prominent Cabinet minister in the government of Pierre Elliott Trudeau. The Trudeau government is remembered today as free-spending.

Chretien must also convince voters in his own province that if his party wins next month, he will actively promote Quebec's interests at a federal level. His record as a Quebec nationalist is poor; the Trudeau government fought and even ridiculed the Quebec independence movement.

On election day, however, the respective popularity ratings of Campbell and Chretien may not decide things. Canada has a British-style electoral system: Voters select a parliamentary majority to form the government, and not an individual to lead the government.

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