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March 31, 2005

Federal Liberals seen by many as spending bunglers, poll says

OTTAWA

Many Canadians fear the federal Liberal government is overspending and running up the national debt, but most feel pretty good about its handling of the economy.

Those are a few of the impressions — sometimes erroneous — gleaned from newly released public opinion polling conducted by Ipsos-Reid last fall for the Finance Department.

Much of the news isn’t good for Prime Minister Paul Martin’s minority Liberals.

A majority of the 1,811 people surveyed weren’t aware of some of Martin’s key fiscal initiatives that were designed to show voters that his government is a careful custodian of the public purse, particularly after the sponsorship scandal.

The poll, like one two years ago, found that a remarkably high percentage of respondents were ignorant of Martin’s biggest claim to fame — slaying the federal deficit as finance minister and paying off billions of dollars in debt.

More people than ever said they still believed Ottawa was running deficits — despite eight consecutive balanced budgets, many with huge surpluses. Forty-four per cent wrongly said Ottawa is in the red, up from 37 per cent from a poll two years earlier.

People may be confusing some provincial government deficits with the federal situation, said Rick Egelton, chief economist with the Bank of Montreal.

“That finding is, to me quite surprising — the string of surpluses has been a real feather in the government’s cap.’’

Many respondents also said the Liberals are throwing around far too much cash, according to the survey conducted between Sept. 30 and Oct. 12. A copy was obtained by The Canadian Press.

By a ratio of two to one, respondents suggested Ottawa “has lost control of its spending’’ and feared it’s losing its commitment to fiscal responsibility.

However, despite such doubts, almost three-quarters of those surveyed said they thought Ottawa had generally done a good job managing the economy. Most of the 27 per cent who disagreed, complained of overspending, slack accountability and corruption.

Egelton suggested people may be worried by a few high profile pacts signed in recent months between Ottawa and provinces — the $41-billion health accord and multibillion dollar equalization deals.

Most experts are confident the federal government has remained fiscally prudent, he said.

“In terms of being cautious and ensuring the books are in the black, their credentials are very strong.

“They’re the only government in the G-7 running budgetary surpluses.’’

But the findings suggest government must more clearly explain its policies, particularly confusing financial issues, said a spokesman for Finance Minister Ralph Goodale.

The Canadian Press

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