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Cablegate: Tories Poised for Modest Gains in Quebec

VZCZCXRO5153
PP RUEHGA RUEHHA RUEHMT RUEHQU RUEHVC
DE RUEHOT #1165/01 2481145
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 041145Z SEP 08
FM AMEMBASSY OTTAWA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 8437
INFO RUCNCAN/ALL CANADIAN POSTS COLLECTIVE PRIORITY

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 OTTAWA 001165

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV PREL ECON SENV CA
SUBJECT: TORIES POISED FOR MODEST GAINS IN QUEBEC

REF: A) Montreal 246

1. (SBU) Summary: With a fall federal election all but certain, our
English and French-speaking contacts in Montreal told us that the
Conservatives are well-positioned to add to their eleven seats in
Quebec. They downplayed the possibility of a major breakthrough,
however, and said that seat changes in Quebec would be minor.
Overall, they said that the election is more likely to be decided in
neighboring Ontario province. This cable complements Montreal's
report on two ongoing federal by-election campaigns in Quebec
scheduled for September 8 (Ref. A). End summary

ELECTION COUNTDOWN
------------------


2. (SBU) Canada is on an election countdown. Although an election
could come at any time, most observers expect the Governor General
to dissolve Parliament between September 5 and 7 for Election Day on
October 14. The PM will likely cite opposition obstruction in
Parliament and uncertain economic times as the basis for seeking a
new mandate. Opposition parties accuse the Conservatives of rushing
to the polls in the belief that their chances of winning are better
now than if they wait while the economy deteriorates. Recent
national and Quebec polls suggest that the Conservatives may be
poised to make gains. The launch of a national campaign would
cancel three federal by-elections already in progress (including two
in the Montreal-area ridings of Westmount-Ville Marie and
Saint-Lambert) scheduled for September 8, and a fourth scheduled for
September 22. An early election would also override Harper's own
legislation passed in 2007 introducing fixed-date elections on four
year terms with the first such election set for October 19, 2009.

CONSERVATIVES POISED FOR GAINS?
-------------------------------

3. (SBU) At almost 31 months, Harper's Conservative government is
the second-longest serving minority government in Canadian history.
As a result, our contacts said that Quebecers are unlikely to punish
the Conservatives for pre-empting their fixed-date election law.
Further, many of our contacts said that the Conservatives are
well-positioned to wrest at least five seats from the Bloc Quebecois
in rural Quebec (including in the Eastern Townships region and
neighboring ridings close to those they already hold outside Quebec
City) to add to the eleven the Conservatives currently hold in the
province. Our contacts believed that the Conservatives are
increasingly emerging as the primary federalist alternative to the
Bloc outside Montreal, but they agreed that the Conservatives will
continue to be shut out of the island of Montreal which remains a
Liberal fortress.


4. (SBU) Overall, however, the majority of our interlocutors
downplayed prospects for a major Conservative breakthrough in the
province, arguing that Quebecers support a continued strong role for
the Bloc in Ottawa and are comfortable with the minority status quo.
Consequently, many said they believed that the Bloc would hold most
of its current 48 seats with only minor slippage. Nonetheless, one
well-connected Conservative insider refused to rule out greater
gains, noting that historically Quebec rural seats have shown they
can shift "en masse" and, once they begin to move, could "fall like
dominoes." In contrast, the majority of our contacts saw no chance
of any movement for the Liberals whom they believed would hold their
11 seats on the island of Montreal, but make no inroads outside the
metropolitan area.

5. (SBU) Several of our contacts said that neither the Conservatives
nor the Liberals have effective organizations on the ground. One
Qnor the Liberals have effective organizations on the ground. One
Conservative insider noted that the Conservatives would probably get
help from the right-leaning provincial Action Democratique du Quebec
(ADQ) in rural Quebec, although he acknowledged that the usefulness
of that help has dwindled with the ADQ's poll numbers. He noted
that the Conservatives could also benefit from discreet support from
the provincial Liberal Party in suburban ridings (such as in the
Saint-Lambert by-election on Montreal's south shore), where the
provincial party may be prepared to work for whichever federal
Liberal or Conservative candidate had the best chance of defeating
the Bloc.

6. (SBU) Many of our contacts agreed that the federal Liberals have
not rebuilt their organization after it was hollowed out by the
sponsorship scandal, but affirmed that their support remains solid
on the island of Montreal. They noted that PM Harper's Quebec
cabinet ministers have not been strong performers, including
Heritage Minister Josee Verner and former Foreign Affairs Minister
Maxime Bernier, although none were likely to lose their seats.
Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon was probably the most solid
performer. In particular, International Trade Minister Michel
Fortier -- an appointed senator who has committed to run in the
Montreal-area riding of Vaudreuil-Soulanges in the next election --
has not been a key player and is highly unlikely to win his seat.


OTTAWA 00001165 002 OF 002


THE ECONOMY TRUMPS THE ENVIRONMENT
----------------------------------

7. (SBU) The economy and pocket-book concerns, especially rising gas
prices, appear to be the major ballot box issues for Quebecers.
They are the staunchest supporters in Canada of the Kyoto Protocol,
but many of our contacts asserted that the federal Liberals' Green
Shift plan had gained no more traction in Quebec than in the rest of
the country. Many of them seemed to agree that Quebecers neither
understand Green Shift nor believe it is suited to the province.
Many strenuously refuted the argument -- common in western Canada --
that the Green Shift was designed to appeal to Quebec and central
Canada. Many of our interlocutors said that Quebecers neither asked
for the Green Shift, nor are grateful for it, underlining that the
federal Liberals should expect no reward. Moreover, they noted that
Liberal leader Stephane Dion had failed to distinguish himself
sufficiently from the Conservatives on any issue except the
environment, and had had little to say on the economy.


STATUS QUO IS FINE
------------------

8. (SBU) Overall, Quebecers seem relatively satisfied with the
status quo and would endorse a second minority Conservative
government, according to the majority opinion of our contacts with
whom we spoke recently. One noted that "minorities mean goodies"
and that Quebecers enjoy the benefit of the Bloc Quebecois's vocal
advocacy in Ottawa and of a federal government eager to win seats in
the province. Our contacts also expressed agreement that the Bloc,
which rode a wave of public anger over the sponsorship scandal in
the 2004 and 2006 elections, would be hard pressed to repeat these
successes. Many predicted that shifts in Quebec seats would be
minor and not enough to make the difference between a majority and
minority government. Our contacts' insights were largely supported
by a CROP poll in Quebec on August 27 that suggested that
Conservative support had risen to 31 percent to 30 percent for the
Bloc Quebecois, largely due to the weakness of the federal Liberals
than enthusiasm for the Conservatives. As a result, it suggested
that the Bloc could lose marginal seats where three-way races had
split the federalist vote.

9. (SBU) Comment: In the absence of a galvanizing issue in a
federal election campaign, and the likelihood that seat changes will
be minimal, Montreal contacts characterized the coming election
campaign as "a bit of a side-show" and more likely to be an exercise
in "clearing the air" than a debate that resonates with Quebecers.
They expected that the key electoral battleground would be in
neighboring seat-rich Ontario where a large number of swing ridings
make the election outcome unpredictable. However, Quebec voters
have a history of confounding predictions -- including the
Conservatives' unexpected gain of ten seats in the 2006 election --
and much will depend on the election campaign itself and the
performance of the party leaders.
WILKINS

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