Cablegate: Primer On Canadian Political Parties

DE RUEHOT #0702/01 1442029
R 232029Z MAY 08




E.O. 12958: N/A

- B. OTTAWA 305
- C. TORONTO 154

1. (SBU) Summary and introduction: The struggle to form Canada's
next government will be between the Conservative and Liberal parties
in a federal election that will take place possibly in fall 2008,
but increasingly more likely in 2009. Whether the vote results in a
minority or majority share of the House of Commons will depend on
the outcome of distinctly regional contests in which smaller parties
- the Bloc Quebecois and the New Democratic Party (NDP) - will play
pivotal roles. The Green Party is also vying for its first seat in
Parliament. Polls suggest that Canadians are largely satisfied with
the minority status quo, at least for now. The two major parties
remain neck and-neck among decided voters (fluctuating between 30
and 33 percent), but the Conservatives are more election-ready,
better-funded, and have a more solid geographical base of support
(ref a). With a possible Conservative majority (155 seats out of a
total 308 in the lower house) resting on the swing of 28-30
constituencies ("ridings") nationally, regional strength,
organization, the parties' ability to hold their core base, and
fine-tuning of political messaging will be the keys to successful
campaigning. In preparation for an eventual election, Embassy
offers the following descriptions of the federal parties that will
compete, while ref b provided details on how Canada organizes and
funds its national elections. End summary and introduction.


2. (U) The Conservative government under Prime Minister Stephen
Harper is already the third-longest serving minority government in
Canadian history and the longest Conservative minority government
ever. The Conservatives won 124 seats of 308 national seats (36.3
percent of total votes) in the 2006 election and, following
subsequent by-elections, currently have 127 seats. The party has a
solid base in Western Canada, where it holds 67 of the 93 seats in
the four westernmost provinces and the Yukon Territory as well as
all of Alberta's 28 seats. Since 2000, it has made steady inroads
in rural and suburban Ontario, winning 41 seats in the province in
2006. The Conservatives made a breakthrough in Quebec province in
2006, electing 10 members in the Quebec City area and eastern
Quebec, and then added an eleventh seat in a 2007 by-election. The
party also holds eight of Atlantic Canada's thirty-two seats.
However, the Conservatives remain shut out of Canada's three largest
cities - Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal.

3. (SBU) With its western base largely secure, the Conservatives
will be on the offensive in the next federal election, fighting for
additional seats in several key two and three-way regional contests:
against the Liberals in Ontario and Atlantic Canada; against the
Liberals and NDP in Northern Ontario; against the Bloc in rural
Quebec; and, against the Liberals and NDP in Winnipeg and Vancouver.
The Conservatives reportedly hope to double their seat total in
francophone rural Quebec province in the next election, where they
are increasingly seen as the most accommodating of the federalist
parties. Polls suggest the party is already neck-and-neck with the
Liberals in that province, and may even have moved ahead as the
leading federalist choice of Quebecers outside of Montreal. The
party is also looking for gains in suburban Ontario province as well
as in Vancouver. The Conservative Party is the best funded and
election-ready of the major parties, with a solid "core" base of
supporters of approximately 30 percent nationally.

4. (SBU) Party strategists regard PM Harper, its leader since 2004,
as the party's greatest political asset and tactician. His cabinet
includes senior ministers from Western Canada as well as Ontario and
Quebec, including Jim Flaherty (Ontario - Finance), John Baird
(Ontario - Environment), David Emerson (British Columbia -
International Trade), Stockwell Day (British Columbia - Public
Safety), Peter MacKay (Nova Scotia - Defense), and Jim Prentice
(Alberta - Industry). In Quebec, Lawrence Cannon (Quebec -
Transport) also acts as PM Harper's senior political minister or
"lieutenant" in the province, while Maxime Bernier serves as Foreign
Minister. However, PM Harper's tendency to centralize
decision-making in the Prime Minister's Office - to an even greater
degree than his predecessors - has limited his ministers' abilities
to carve their own political profiles, leaving the PM as the
government's very public face.


5. (SBU) The Conservatives' brand strength lies in "hard" issues
such as tax cuts, the economy, security, and tackling crime. The
party has already developed its twin campaign themes of "Leadership"
and "Getting the Job Done" focusing on government accountability,
tax cuts, crime, parental choice in child care, "realistic"
environmental choices, stronger defense, and national security. The
party will present PM Harper as a decisive, fiscally responsible
leader in contrast to Liberal chief Stephane Dion, whom the
Conservatives claim is "weak," unable to set priorities, and "not
worth the risk."

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6. (SBU) Conservative political messaging targets the middle-class -
especially families - and has attempted to align the Conservatives
"on the side of those who work hard, pay their taxes, and play by
the rules." Popular suspicion of an extreme right-wing "hidden
agenda" on social issues has largely dissipated, although the party
remains further to the right of majority public opinion on issues
such as climate change and same-sex marriage, and the government's
alleged "take-no-prisoners" style continues to raise some concerns
about whether the public should trust the Conservatives with a
majority mandate. Controversy over the future of the Canadian
Forces' mission in Afghanistan has essentially disappeared following
the March 13 bipartisan vote in the Commons to extend the mission to
2011. Support for the Conservatives remains strongest among men,
but lags among urban voters, women, and ethnic minorities. The
latter have traditionally supported the Liberal Party, but the
Conservatives have made efforts to reach out to specific ethnic
groups; the government will, for example, fete Ukrainian President
Yushchenko May 26-28 and has invited him to address a fairly rare
joint session of Parliament, in recognition of the Ukraine's
sizeable diaspora, particularly in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.


7. (U) The Liberal Party won 103 seats (30.2 percent of total votes)
in the 2006 election, which ended twelve consecutive years of
Liberal government. The party currently has slipped further to
ninety-six seats. Ontario has been the bedrock of four successive
Liberal governments since 1993 and remains the party's primary base
of support, accounting for more than fifty percent (53 seats) of the
total caucus. The Liberals are a major force in Canada's largest
cities, holding all but two of the 22 ridings in the urban core of
Toronto, eleven in Montreal, and seven in Vancouver. They are also
competitive in Atlantic Canada, where they hold 20 of the region's
32 seats.

8. (SBU) However, the party has only a token presence (six seats)
nationally outside the Vancouver-Ontario-Montreal-Atlantic Canadian
axis, and the party is now overwhelmingly urban in character. Its
longstanding weakness in western Canada (dating back to the 1970s)
has been compounded by the collapse of traditional support in Quebec
province, which slumped from 36 of 75 ridings in 2000, to 21 in
2004, and finally to 11 in 2006 as a result of a relatively minor
corruption case still known as "the sponsorship scandal." Liberal
insiders admit that Quebec support will take years to rebuild and
will not rebound before the next election.

9. (SBU) Nor do the Liberals have the luxury of a secure bastion
akin to the Conservatives' dominance of the West; the Liberals' hold
on Ontario is under pressure from both the right and the left in
urban as well as rural areas. The party's principal challenge is to
shore up urban ridings against the NDP in Toronto, Windsor, and
Hamilton as well as in Northern Ontario, and against the
Conservatives in rural, small-town, and suburban Ontario, especially
the commuter belt around Toronto. It must also hold the line
against the Bloc in Montreal, and against both the Conservatives and
NDP in Winnipeg and Vancouver. Prospects are brighter in Atlantic
Canada, where the party may profit from bitter provincial disputes
with the Conservative federal government over natural resource
revenues. The Liberal Party continues a process of renewal begun
under Dion since December 2006, but remains substantially behind the
Conservatives in fundraising, policy development, and election
QConservatives in fundraising, policy development, and election
preparedness. Communications also remain a weak link, not only due
to Dion's linguistic struggles in English. The party leads among
female and urban voters as well as ethnic communities, but lags
among the majority of males of all age groups. It has a core base
of approximately 28 percent nationally.


10. (SBU) The appeal of the Liberal "brand" continues to exceed that
of leader Dion, whose personal approval rating sank to a dismal 10
percent in a mid-May poll, a historic low for any Liberal leader.
Eighteen months into the job, Dion remains largely a "blank slate"
to most Canadians. In contrast to the Conservatives' focus on PM
Harper, Dion touts the collective talents of a "Dream Team" of
former leadership candidates and current MPs Michael Ignatieff, Bob
Rae, Ken Dryden, Gerard Kennedy, and Martha Hall-Findlay, as well as
senior MPs Ralph Goodale and Scott Brison. Former astronaut Marc
Garneau and Justin Trudeau (son of the iconic Liberal former PM
Pierre Trudeau) will run as "star" candidates in the next election.
However, approximately 20 incumbent Liberal MPs have indicated they
will not run again.

11. (SBU) Dion's leadership pledge to create a "richer, fairer,
greener" Canada has as yet few details, and his policy of "whipped
abstentions" - or "strategic patience" - to avoid votes in the
Commons that would bring down the government has left the party's
overall policy stance unclear. However, he apparently plans to
flesh out a carbon tax plan as the centerpiece of the Liberal
election platform over the course of the summer parliamentary

OTTAWA 00000702 003 OF 004

recess. According to party insiders, the strategy of this former
Environment Minister will be to make a bold gesture on a defining
issue about which he feels passionately, but some Liberals fear the
Conservatives may successfully define it instead as a "tax grab"
that voters will not want. Dion's approach appears to be to present
this tax -- offset by income and possibly corporate tax cuts -- as
part of an economic stimulus package, rather than as a purely
environmental issue (ref c). The Liberals will also reiterate
traditional themes of "values," promoting social justice, fighting
poverty, making investment in cities and infrastructure, improving
health and post-secondary education, and better managing aboriginal


12. (U) Formed in 1990, the separatist Bloc Quebecois fields
candidates only in Quebec province's 75 ridings. It will never form
a federal government, although it was the Official Opposition
between 1993 and 1997.

13. (SBU) The Bloc won 51 of 75 seats (42.1 percent of total votes)
in the province in 2006. It currently holds 48 seats in a broad
swathe of francophone ridings outside Montreal. The Conservatives
have emerged as the Bloc's principal rival in rural, francophone
areas of the province. Essentially maxed-out in the Quebec City
area, the Conservatives are looking to shake loose Bloc voters even
in the sovereignist heartland of the Lac-Saint-Jean region; in a
2007 by-election, the Bloc lost the sovereignist bastion of
Roberval-Lac-St Jean to a Conservative. Declining support for the
Bloc beginning in the late 1990s rebounded in 2004 as a result of
the Liberals' "sponsorship scandal." It currently hovers at
approximately 40 percent within Quebec province. Since 2006,
however, the party has not found any new issue with particular
resonance, but it nonetheless retains the advantage of a formidable
and proven electoral machine on the ground.

14. (SBU) The Bloc pursues a Quebec-centered agenda that leans
toward "progressive," left-of-center policies on labor, justice,
defense, environmental, and social issues. It strongly supports the
Kyoto Accord, same-sex marriage, and gun control. The Bloc opposed
the extension of the Canadian Forces' mission in Afghanistan in both
the 2006 and 2008 votes in the Commons. As a "junior partner" of
the provincial Parti Quebecois, the Bloc has increasingly
concentrated on defending Quebec's interests in culture, language,
forestry and resource industries, and agriculture following the PQ's
decision in 2007 to put Quebec sovereignty on the back-burner. The
Bloc co-operates with all opposition parties in this minority
parliament on an ad hoc basis where it judges the interests of
Quebec coincide, but has taken advantage of the Liberals' reluctance
to defeat the current government to oppose the Conservatives with
impunity on almost all major issues since 2007.

15. (SBU) Gilles Duceppe has led the party since 1997 and is its
sole dominant figure. He has denied persistent rumors that he may
step down before, or shortly after, the next election. There are no
obvious candidates to succeed him, although Duceppe loyalist and
deputy leader Pierre Paquette remains the likely future leader.


16. (U) The social democratic NDP won 29 seats (17.4 percent of
total votes) in the 2006 election, which rose to 30 after it won a
rare upset by-election in Quebec province in 2007. It increased its
popular vote by only 2 percent from the 2004 election, but added ten
new seats in British Columbia and urban Ontario. Twenty-two of the
Qnew seats in British Columbia and urban Ontario. Twenty-two of the
party's seats represent Ontario and British Columbia. Under
Toronto-based leader Jack Layton since 2002, the NDP has continued
its transformation from a largely rural western Canadian caucus in
the 1980s to an almost exclusively urban party concentrated in
Toronto, Vancouver, and Winnipeg. It has pockets of support in
northern Ontario and the maritime provinces, in addition to its
high-profile single beachhead in Montreal. The party's "core" base
of support is approximately 12-14 percent nationwide.

17. (SBU) Few of the party's seats are "safe," however. The
majority stem from tight margins in two and three-way splits against
the Liberals in urban and northern Ontario, and against the
Conservatives and Liberals in Winnipeg, Vancouver, and Halifax.
Even small swings in overall support can produce disproportionate
gains or losses. The Green Party's appeal to NDP voters since 2004
further threatens to fragment NDP support. Disenchanted Liberal
voters turned to the NDP or stayed home in 2006 over the sponsorship
scandal; hanging on to those voters will be a challenge in the next
election. The NDP is also highly vulnerable to strategic voting if
center-left voters flee to the Liberals to prevent a Conservative
majority, underlining the Conservatives' need to handle the NDP with
kid gloves in Vancouver and urban Ontario. The party's 2007
by-election win in Montreal (Outremont) raised NDP hopes of a
breakthrough in Quebec, but realistically the party will be
hard-pressed to hold even this riding in the next election.

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18. (SBU) The NDP has never formed a federal government, but exerts
influence when it can exercise a certain balance of power in
minority parliaments. It is the self-styled "conscience" of
Parliament and champion of "ordinary Canadians." Its chief issues
are defense of the public health care system, promotion of human
rights and gender equality, improving education and the environment,
fighting poverty, and reducing income inequality. The NDP opposed
extension of the Canadian Forces' mission in Kandahar, and was the
only party to call for immediate withdrawal of Canadian troops from
Afghanistan. The party maintains ties to organized labor, but these
links have slackened over the last decade.


19. (U) Founded in 1983, the Green Party has never won a seat in the
Commons, despite fielding candidates in all 308 ridings nationwide
in the 2004 and 2006 elections. Its support has ranged between 4.5
percent of total votes in 2006 and fifteen percent in subsequent
polls, and it has not fallen below 7 percent in any opinion poll
since 2007. With approximately 9,000 registered members, it is the
largest federal party in Canada without representation in
Parliament. The party claims supporters from all political parties,
but leans largely to the left of the political spectrum. The
party's platform emphasizes "green economics," investment in green
technologies, progressive social planning and taxation, and
responsible governance.

20. (SBU) The party's lack of a regional base or local pockets of
strength makes it unlikely to win any seats in the next election,
either. Leader Elizabeth May will run a symbolic but likely futile
campaign against Conservative Defense Minister Peter MacKay in his
riding in Nova Scotia. However, the party threatens to drain NDP
and Liberal support in urban Ontario and British Columbia,
particularly if the next election focuses on the environment and the
Liberals' carbon tax proposal.


21. (SBU) A fall election is the Liberals' last real chance to
trigger an election on their own terms before the logic of waiting
for a fixed-date election in October 2009 becomes compelling.
However, lack of issues with national resonance, fluctuations in
regional polls - which belie the stagnation in national polling
numbers - and a plethora of distinct regional competitions make the
outcome a true gamble. The public seems content to let the
Conservatives keep governing for the foreseeable future, at least
while Canadian voters continue to watch with unprecedented
fascination the more exciting U.S. Presidential race.

© Scoop Media

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