As Canada Heads for the Polls This Fall, the Focus Is Jobs

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THE juices are flowing for Canadian politicians in this federal election year and many issues are vying for attention. But economists, pundits, and pollsters all agree one thing will be front-and-center: the economy.

"Unemployment, jobs, deficit, and debt - the economy has become a national preoccupation," says Scott MacKay, a researcher with Angus Reid Group in Winnipeg, Manitoba, a polling firm.

Canada's economy is picking up steam and this year it could end up leading the pack among the major industrialized nations. Last week the government reported Canada's real gross domestic product (GDP) rose at an annual rate of 3.8 percent in the first quarter of 1993, up from 2.6 percent in the fourth quarter.

But whether that good economic news will translate into the sort of political benefits that pump up Canada's new prime minister and her Progressive Conservative Party in this fall's federal elections is questionable, analysts say.

"What's important politically is the public perception of whether the economy is improving or not," says Jon Pammett, chairman of the political science department at Carleton University in Ottawa. "The general perception in the country is that the economy isn't improving. People judge this for themselves by their job situation and their own purchasing power."

Canada's economy is pulling out of recession ahead of Japan and Europe, economists say. Growth in the United States, reported last week for the first quarter, was by contrast at a 0.7 percent annual rate. Canadian exports are up, consumer spending is up, business spending on machinery is up, and inflation is still low at less than 2 percent.

With all these plusses working for the conservative government, logic says the Tories should benefit at the polls. Not so fast, pundits say.

The country's 11.4 percent unemployment rate looms over the coming election and the improving economy, economists and political watchers say. The economy will shave a few tenths of a percent off that number by November, the last month an election can be held, but a drop to the 10 percent range still is not likely to sway the public, they say.

In a mid-month poll, conservatives and their new leader Kim Campbell, with 33 percent public support, still trailed the Liberal Party with 43 percent, Mr. …