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Ontario's Love for Hawk on Budget Turns Cold as Cuts Begin to Bite

Premier Mike Harris, 'Newt of the North,' loses popularity

EIGHT months ago, Ontario voters elected a deficit hawk named Mike Harris to chop government spending. But now they are troubled that the premier's axe is biting too deeply into their cherished programs.

From the day he took office last June, Mr. Harris was tagged ''Newt of the North'' by detractors, referring to the budget-slashing Speaker of the US House, Newt Gingrich. He quickly earned the moniker in some eyes by lopping 22 percent off welfare benefits despite sometimes violent protests.

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Tax-weary middle-class voters at first applauded his resolve. But their cheers subsided in November when Harris announced C$8.2 billion (US$6 billion) in cuts that will close hospitals, raise college tuitions, and curtail municipal services and arts and environmental programs.

Now Harris's popularity is slipping badly. His approval rating has dropped from a high of 59 percent in September to 46 percent in January, according to an Angus Reid Group poll released this month. In lock step, voter support for Harris's Progressive Conservative Party fell from 50 percent in September to 34 percent this month, according to Environics Research Group, a Toronto polling firm.

''People were, in the beginning, very much in favor of what he was talking about,'' says Hugh Thorburn, a political scientist at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. ''But nobody thought he would really cut government services to the degree he has - and [people] are finding that the cuts are actually affecting them.''

John Kakagiannis, a computer analyst in Toronto, reflects the public souring that pollsters say is unusual and potentially damaging this early in a government's mandate. ''I voted for him, and I expected a few changes,'' Mr. Kakagiannis says. ''But these cuts to health care and other things are affecting even normal working people like me. His approach is generally all right, but I have to say I think he is cutting much too fast.''

But ''fast'' is what Harris says is needed to whip the province's flabby bureaucracy into shape and keep it from sinking under more than $73 billion in debt.

''Some say we tried to do too much too fast,'' he said recently. ''Time will tell whether these decisions were good or bad ones.''

Questioned about the government's sliding popularity, an aide to the premier, Paul Rhodes, says: ''Are we concerned about it? In a day-to-day sense, no. We are in the early stages of a difficult political agenda ... we are facing the task of getting the government out of a massive economic hole.''

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Rising social spending under the past two governments left Ontario with an average annual deficit of more than $7 billion over the past four years. To fix this, Harris is planning an additional $3 billion on top of cuts already made. Even so, a balanced budget is not expected until the year 2001.

Despite this dire fiscal situation, Harris's government reaffirmed last week its plan to deliver a 30 percent income-tax cut, to meet a campaign promise. Debt-ratings agencies warn that it may sink the province in more red ink.

Even among voters who generally support Harris, the tax-cut idea has an image of being made ''on the backs of the poor'' and could backfire. ''I have mixed feelings about him,'' says Jane Cullen, a Toronto housewife.

''I voted for him, and I support him in a lot of areas. But I think he's moving too fast and hurting the poor. My husband and I don't need the tax cut that bad.''

Harris's support is also being hurt by a growing perception that, in addition to government harshness in delivering the cuts, there is arrogance as well.

For many, the central public symbol of government hubris was the handling of Bill 26. The Harris majority rocketed it through the legislature with little debate last month. The law gives the government sweeping powers to amend and restructure legislation across the fields of health care, environment, municipalities, public disclosure, and many others.

To fix the government's deteriorating image and plan future strategy, Harris's party will meet tomorrow in Hamilton, Ontario, to mull over ways to recover its popularity. But the speakers may have to shout to make themselves heard over the jeers of protesters outside. Ontario's 67,000 public workers voted Sunday to strike if they don't get a new contract. The Harris government has said it plans to fire at least 13,000 of them soon.

''It's time for the government to say mea culpa - to admit that they were a little inexperienced. Up to now they have just been scaring people. The first thing to do is get rid of the tough-guy image. They've got to be less provocative,'' says Mr. Thornbush.

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