Cablegate: Federal by-Election - Prominent Liberals Prepare for Move

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P 121929Z MAR 08




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1. (SBU) SUMMARY: In the two Ontario by-elections slated for March
17, the federal Liberals appear poised to send two well-known
personalities to join the ranks of the Liberal caucus in Ottawa. In
suburban Toronto Willowdale, former Liberal leadership candidate
Martha Hall Findlay looks to be a lock to maintain the long-time
Liberal stronghold. In Toronto Centre, former NDP Ontario Premier
Bob Rae--now a Liberal and also a loser to Stephane Dion in the 2006
leadership race--is likely to claim a seat for what some say are his
thinly disguised ambitions to run the federal Liberals. A Rae
victory in Toronto Centre-a riding with significant NDP and Green
followings-will give an articulate and well known critic of Canada's
presence in Afghanistan a parliamentary base. Harper's
Conservatives, sensing that the Toronto races are largely a lost
cause, have run a low-key campaign, folding the by-election into
their larger program of attacks on Ontario Liberal Premier Dalton
McGuinty and federal Liberal leader Dion. END SUMMARY.

All Quiet in Willowdale

2. (SBU) Overshadowed by maneuvering in Ottawa over a potential
spring election, intense media coverage of the U.S. presidential
primary season, and to a lesser extent Bob Rae in Toronto Centre,
Martha Hall Findlay has run a quiet campaign focused on maintaining
the "Liberal tradition" in Willowdale, home riding of former federal
Liberal minister Jim Peterson. Conservative candidate Maureen
Harquail, cousin of current federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty,
is unlikely to make significant inroads. Both the NDP and Greens
are almost certain to be nonfactors on March 17. Issues have been
largely local, focusing mostly on improving federal support for
transit in the Greater Toronto Area, health-care access, and
recognition of foreign educational qualifications. A prominent Tory
here lamented to us the "lost opportunity" in this riding, saying he
thought the Conservatives might have had a chance, if they had
picked a stronger candidate and run a stronger campaign.

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Harper, Dion and Layton Proxies Fight In Toronto
--------------------------------------------- ---

3. (SBU) In Toronto Central, the presence of Bob Rae, widely
believed to hold leadership ambitions within the federal Liberal
Party, has focused the race on big-picture federal issues, such as
Afghanistan, crime, and what is perceived as a general failure by
the Liberals to effectively oppose the Conservative Harper
government. The riding has been held by the Liberals since 1993,
but both the NDP and Greens believe a strong showing is possible in
this left-leaning riding.

4. (SBU) Rae, who still fights memories of his chaotic NDP
Premiership here in the early 1990s, has pointed to his record in
building social and low-income housing while Premier as evidence of
his ties to the riding and that his Premiership was not "a total
disaster." In a March 11 debate, Rae paid cursory attention to
local issues, and quickly pivoted to a larger critique of the Harper
government. In campaign literature and public appearances, Rae
paints Harper (he rarely mentions the Conservative candidate in the
riding, Don Meredith) as an acolyte of George Bush and the
Republican Party. Surprisingly thin-skinned in a campaign where he
has a significant advantage, Rae brandished Conservative and NDP
literature with unflattering pictures of Stephane Dion, accusing his
opponents of "dirty tricks," and berating his Green Party opponent
for suggesting that Canadian Forces (CF) are in Iraq under the
auspices of the NATO Training Mission and/or DOD/CF exchanges.

5. (SBU) Rae faces pressure on the left from the NDP and Greens. At
the March 11 debate, NDP candidate El-Farouk Khaki earned cheers for
describing Canada's Afghanistan presence as "war-mongering," and for
railing against the Security and Prosperity Partnership. Green
Candidate Chris Tindal, who was relatively successful in the riding
in the 2006 federal elections, continued to pitch his candidacy as
an "historic" chance to elect the first Green to the Commons.

6. (SBU) Don Meredith, a Toronto preacher, businessman, and
civic-activist, is widely acknowledged as the Conservatives'
"sacrificial lamb" in the riding. An already difficult situation
was made more so as he joined the campaign late, after the federal
Conservatives ditched their previous candidate for alleged
disloyalty to Harper. His debate appearances have been-charitably
put-"unsteady and inarticulate." Seemingly unsure of his brief,
each of his attempts to defend the Harper record of balanced budgets
and his warning that people could see "blood in the streets" of
Toronto if a soft-on-crime Liberal government were elected, were met
with loud boos and cries of "fascist" from the debate audience.

7. (SBU) COMMENT: The lack of publicly available riding-specific
opinion polling and the lack of media coverage in the mainstream
Toronto outlets normally would make definitive predictions on the

TORONTO 00000070 002 OF 002

by-elections difficult. All of our contacts, including high-level
Conservatives, however, agree that the Liberals will win both
ridings handily. The NDP and Greens may surprise in Toronto Centre
as voters, believing by-elections will not affect the near-term
balance of power in the House of Commons, may choose to indulge
their leftist leanings. With Rae's strong message on Afghanistan,
position as Foreign Affairs Critic, and relatively distinguished
background, he will undoubtedly have an impact on the Liberal caucus
in Ottawa once he joins Parliament. END COMMENT.


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