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Cablegate: Liberal ""Bounce"" From by-Elections, but Not Enough?

VZCZCXRO8403
PP RUEHGA RUEHHA RUEHQU RUEHVC
DE RUEHOT #0394/01 0781847
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
P 181847Z MAR 08
FM AMEMBASSY OTTAWA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 7534
INFO RUCNCAN/ALL CANADIAN POSTS COLLECTIVE

“C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 OTTAWA 000394

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 03/18/2013
TAGS: PGOV CA
SUBJECT: LIBERAL ""BOUNCE"" FROM BY-ELECTIONS, BUT NOT ENOUGH?

REF: A. TORONTO 074
B. 07 OTTAWA 2308

Classified By: PolMinCouns Scott Bellard, reason 1.4 (d)

1. (C) Summary: The Liberal Party won three of the four
federal by-elections on March 17, which will bring high
profile politicians Bob Rae and Martha Hall Findlay to
Parliament to bolster the Liberal ""team."" The Conservatives
picked up a former Liberal seat in Saskatchewan, however.
Low voter turn-out, while typical in by-elections, may also
indicate that the Liberals' grassroots organization is not
yet strong enough to support a possible spring federal
election, despite the apparent enthusiasm of some Liberal
leaders for another go at forming a government. Policy took
a back-seat to personality in the by-elections, suggesting
that the ethical issues the Liberals have been championing
did not find great resonance with voters. End summary.

LIBERAL VICTORIES, MOSTLY
-------------------------

2. (U) In the March 17 federal by-elections, the Liberal
Party - as expected - retained control of three key urban
ridings: Toronto Centre; Willowdale (Toronto); and
Vancouver-Quadra. (Ref a described the Ontario election
results, which will bring into Parliament two of Stephane
Dion's former competitors in the December 2006 Liberal Party
leadership race, Bob Rae and Martha Hall Findlay.) However,
the Conservative candidate won the previously Liberal riding
of Desneth-Missinippi-Churchill River in northern
Saskatchewan, despite Dion's personal pick of aboriginal
candidate Joan Beatty. Dion hailed the three wins as a
""great day for Liberals"" and celebrated the addition of Rae
and Hall Findlay to his ""dream team"" of high-profile MPs.

3. (U) In the wake of the four by-elections, current party
standings in the House of Commons are:
-- Conservatives, 127;
-- Liberals, 97;
-- Bloc Quebecois, 48;
-- New Democratic Party (NDP), 30; and,
-- Independents, 4.

In addition, there remain two vacancies, for which the
government must announce dates for by-elections by June 2008.


LOW TURNOUT
-----------

4. (U) Voter turn-out was uniformly low, as is the norm for
federal by-elections, running at only 27.9 percent in Toronto
Centre, 24.4 percent in Willowdale, 33.9 percent in
Vancouver-Quadra, and 25 percent in
Desneth-Missinippi-Churchill River. Notably, Liberal victor
in Vancouver-Quadra Joyce Murray carried only 36.1 percent of
the vote (with the Conservative candidate almost neck in neck
at 35.5 percent), unlike the 2006 election, in which the
Liberal victor in this riding had won 49.1 percent of the
vote.

COMMENT
-------

5. (C) The Liberals had been looking for a popular ""bounce""
from these by-elections, and Dion personally needed a solid
win to put the Liberals' September 2007 by-election loss of
the ""safe"" Montreal seat of Outremont behind him. Winning
even only three of the seats is still a psychological boost,
although it may also have demonstrated weaknesses in the
Liberals' grassroots organization, which may still not be
quite ready -- in terms of finances or personnel -- for a
general election. Many within the Liberal caucus --
reportedly even including Dion as well as Deputy Leader
Michael Ignatieff -- are still apparently chomping at the bit
to force a spring election, and seem to be casting an eye on
bringing a confidence vote on one of the allotted Opposition
Days on March 31, April 1, or April 2, as soon as the Commons
reconvenes.

6. (C) A March 13-16 Strategic Counsel poll would seem to
provide little incentive to go to an early vote, however,
reporting support for the Conservatives at 38 percent and for
the Liberals at only 27 percent. Liberal enthusiasm for an
early federal election probably stems more from discomfort
with the current policy of ""whipped abstentions"" (and
discontent with Dion as leader) than from any genuine sense
that the Liberals are apt substantially to increase their
seat count. Nevertheless, the likelihood is that the voices
of caution with the Liberal caucus will remain predominant
for the time being, and that the Liberals will seek instead
during the Commons' next sitting to showcase Rae and Hall

OTTAWA 00000394 002 OF 002


Findlay's talents in advance of a possible fall election.
Dion appeared to lean this way in a post-election press
conference on March 18, noting that the caucus' first
priority will be to hold the government accountable and to
make sure that Parliament works effectively, while choosing
the ""right time"" to trigger an election. For Dion
personally, the addition of the new recruits -- particularly
Rae -- to the Liberal front bench may prove to be a double
edged sword if Rae's eloquence eclipses Dion in Question
Period (not that many voters follow these televised exchanges
very closely). As the Liberals' foreign policy critic, Rae
likely will speak out forcefully on human rights in China and
Afghanistan.

7. (C) Overall, the Conservatives are probably very
comfortable with the outcome of the by-elections. They had
only an outside chance at the Saskatchewan seat -- which they
won -- and kept expectations low by insisting that the
elections were the Liberals' to lose. They expended little
effort or treasure. Their solid second showing in Vancouver
may also show that that they are beginning to make some
inroads in key urban areas, a perennial weak point for the
party. In contrast, the NDP -- which has been the loudest
opposition voice in favor of an early federal election -- was
effectively marginalized in the by-elections, fighting for
third place with the upstart Green Party.

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