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Cablegate: Atlantic Canada: Pre-Election Soundings

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 HALIFAX 000101

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE

FOR WHA/CAN

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV ECON CA
SUBJECT: ATLANTIC CANADA: PRE-ELECTION SOUNDINGS

SENSITIVE BUT UNCLASSIFIED -- PROTECT ACCORDINGLY

1. (SBU) SUMMARY: The consensus of opinion among political
observers in Atlantic Canada is that Prime Minister Martin will
call an early summer election. While the region's 32 seats in
Parliament are a relatively small bloc, they could make the
difference in a close election between a minority and majority
government. Liberals think that Paul Martin will be much more
popular tan Stephen Harper in the region, and that they will be
able to steal some Conservative seats. Both Conservatives and
the NDP think voters are tired of the scandal-plagued Liberals
and ready for a change. However, our early guess is that there
will not be any seismic shifts in party alignment as a result of
the general election. END SUMMARY.

2. (SBU) The possibility of a federal election call in the
near future has Atlantic Canadian parties and politicians
nominating candidates, filling the campaign coffers and
positioning themselves to be ready when the writ is dropped.
The timing of the election is of course known only to the Prime
Minister, but the expectation in this region seems to be
generally for an early summer contest. Federal Infrastructure
Minister Andy Scott, for example, told CG that he does not
expect Parliament to be recalled after the Easter recess,
implying a late May/early June election. A prominent Halifax
Liberal who recently met with the PM said that Martin was upbeat
about the party's prospects and recent polling data showing that
Liberal support is recovering after a dip caused by the
sponsorship scandal; our contact thinks the election will be
held -- barring some unforeseen new scandalous revelation -- by
the end of June at the latest. Others expect the election to be
called just after the Prime Minister meets with the President,
although some cite the PM's desire to attend the 60th
anniversary ceremonies for D-Day as a reason that the election
call will not be made until early June.

3. (SBU) Atlantic Canada has 32 MPs and over half of the
region's seats are currently held by Liberals. The top-of-mind
issues for most Atlantic Canadians are health care, the economy
and jobs, similar to the rest of the country. Smaller but still
significant groups watch developments in federal fisheries and
environmental policies closely. The region as a whole tends to
be "small c" conservative on many social issues, particularly in
rural areas (as an illustration, Nova Scotia does not have
Sunday shopping and it is unclear if a promised referendum on
the issue will change that), but topics like gay marriage and
the gun registry do not excite the same level of passion that
they seem to in other regions. "Small l" liberalism is
concentrated in the cities, which are growing in population
relative to the countryside, something that has been reflected
in re-drawn riding boundaries for the next election. Atlantic
Canadian voting patterns can be contrarian, as the recent
Conservative Party leadership showed -- the region bucked the
national trend toward Stephen Harper and generally supported
Belinda Stronach.

PAUL MARTIN: TARNISHED BUT STILL POPULAR?

4. (SBU) Selection of candidates is important in many parts of
the region, and voters are often more comfortable with a
long-serving local politician or other community figure who is a
known quantity. Nevertheless, a popular national leader can
have long coat tails as well and tip the balance in close races.
Liberals in Atlantic Canada will run a campaign emphasizing
their leader, Prime Minister Paul Martin, whom they believe to
be the major party leader most trusted by voters in the region.
In addition they have a slate of experienced MPs, most of whom
will be running again.

5. (SBU) The Liberals are also making maximum use of
incumbency by doing their part to spread government largesse in
the area in advance of an election, with Liberal cabinet members
prominently announcing in recent weeks new federal funding for
university research and Halifax harbor cleanup, among other
items. The recent announcement of a 55% increase in the
allowable snow crab catch also will not hurt their chances at
the polls with people who make their living in the fishery.


THE HARPER FACTOR

6. (SBU) Although he has stressed his family's New Brunswick
roots, and has appointed a Nova Scotian as his deputy leader,
Conservative Stephen Harper is still viewed with some skepticism
in Atlantic Canada, primarily for his comments about the
region's "culture of defeat." He generally ran poorly in
Atlantic Canada during the leadership contest, although he did
well in ridings where he was either endorsed by a sitting MP
(such as NB Southwest's Greg Thompson) or where he was able to
campaign in person (such as Halifax). Harper has made the
effort to reach out to the region, making early trips to New
Brunswick and Nova Scotia, and has tried to clarify and soften
his earlier call for the elimination of the Atlantic Canada
Opportunities Agency.

7. (SBU) How well Harper plays in Atlantic Canada will be a
key to how well the Conservatives do here in the next election.
Conservatives in all four provinces profess to be delighted with
the party merger and with Harper's clear emergence as leader.
They say the party can now stop splitting the conservative vote
and unite to face entrenched Liberals. Nevertheless, there are
many "red Tories" in the region who are privately still somewhat
ambivalent about Harper's Reform Party background. Furthermore,
since Reform/Canadian Alliance never polled significantly in
Atlantic Canada, uniting the right as a practical matter will
not help Conservative fortunes much since the vote here was not
seriously split. New Brunswick MP John Herron has gone public
with his concerns about the merger, refusing to join the new
party and sitting in the House as an "Independent Conservative"
until the next election when he will run as a Liberal.

A PROTEST VOTE FOR THE NDP?

8. (SBU) Newfoundland and Labrador NDP leader Jack Harris told
CG that "optimists" in his party are predicting 60 federal seats
in the next election, many the result of a protest vote against
the scandal-plagued Liberals. Harris clearly thought that
estimate was high (COMMENT: So do we. END COMMENT), but he was
confident that the party would pick up seats nationwide in the
next election. Nova Scotia NDP leader Darrell Dexter, while
uneasy predicting a specific seat total, says he thinks a
minority government is a real possibility after the next
election. As one who is the leader of the opposition to a
minority Tory government, he is not enthusiastic about the same
thing at a national level.

9. (SBU) Jack Layton, at least as of now, does not seem to be
registering too strongly with voters in the region. Only in
Nova Scotia does the NDP have a noticeable presence at the
provincial level; and one of the party's sitting federal MPs
(Wendy Lill of Dartmouth) will not run again because of health
concerns. On balance the NDP's chances of significantly
improving its seat total in Atlantic Canada do not seem all that
great.

PROVINCE-BY-PROVINCE

10. (SBU) NOVA SCOTIA

The region's most populous province has 11 federal MPs: five
Liberals (including Fisheries Minister Geoff Regan, former
minister Robert Thibault, U.S. relations czar Scott Brison and
Parliamentary Secretary Mark Eyking), three Conservatives
(including Deputy leader Peter MacKay) and three NDP (including
former leader Alexa McDonough). Conservatives will target their
former member Scott Brison who crossed the floor to sit as a
Liberal; Stephen Harper has already appeared at the riding
meeting to select Brison's Conservative opponent and has said
that he would "pop in" more than once during the general
election to campaign for Brison's Conservative challenger and
return the riding to it's "traditional" blue. The NDP, usually
strongest in the cities, will go after Geoff Regan's Halifax
West seat and the Conservative-held South Shore riding where
they perceive a weak candidate.

11. (SBU) Liberals are confident they can gain one or more of
the Conservative-held seats in the province; the NDP thinks it
can pick off at least one Liberal and one Conservative;
Conservatives think Brison is vulnerable. Progressive
Conservative Premier John Hamm, who leads a minority government,
and was careful to stay away from endorsing anyone in the
leadership race, will throw his weight behind the Conservative
candidates, which could help in close races.

12. (SBU) NEW BRUNSWICK

Six of New Brunswick's 10 seats are Liberal, and John Herron
will run as a Liberal in the next election. The Conservatives
have two seats: one seems relatively safe while the other,
vacated by the retiring Elsie Wayne, is up for grabs. One
notable non-candidate in the next election, former Premier Frank
McKenna, told CG that he had been encouraged by the Prime
Minister to re-enter politics, but that the PM was not able to
deliver a promised Moncton-area riding from which to run.
McKenna refused to contest a nomination against a sitting
Liberal MP, citing the negative publicity of the Sheila
Copps-Tony Valeri food fight, and also said he was not inclined
to parachute into a riding where he had no local connections,
like Elsie Wayne's in St. John. McKenna was very upbeat about
Liberal prospects in New Brunswick, saying that despite
divisions and hard feelings among the Chretien and Martin camps,
"the party always closes ranks and rallies" at election time.

13. (SBU) NEWFOUNDLAND AND LABRADOR

N-L's seven seats are split four Liberal and three Conservative.
Although the provincial government is handily controlled by the
Tories, Premier Danny Williams has seen his popularity fall
significantly since last November's election victory. He is
currently locked in a tough battle with public sector unions
over wages and job security, something that might have an impact
on Conservative fortunes in a federal election. One of his key
issues is a new revenue sharing deal with Ottawa for offshore
energy revenues, something that would sharply boost his
popularity. (FYI: Opposition leader Roger Grimes told CG that
if Williams pulls off a new deal with Ottawa: "I would vote for
him myself and urge others to do so." END FYI.) A senior
Liberal strategist told CG that Ottawa is ready to agree to a
new revenue-sharing formula for offshore energy royalties, but
won't do so until after the election to avoid giving any kind of
a boost to Williams (and Tory Premier John Hamm in NS).

14. (SBU) Former opposition house leader and current fisheries
critic Loyola Hearn told CG before the Conservative leadership
selection that he expected the party to keep its three seats and
possibly add one in a general election. But he also said that
N-L politics are volatile enough that depending on what was
happening at the time of the election he and his Conservative
colleagues could potentially all lose their seats. A Liberal
told CG that he expects exactly that to happen in N-L -- a
Liberal sweep.

15. (SBU) PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND

With only four seats, tiny PEI is too easily overlooked in
federal political calculations. Currently all four seats are
held by Liberals, although at the provincial level the Tories in
late 2003 comfortably formed a government after taking 23 of the
27 seats in the legislature. Conservatives hope to pick one or
more seats at the federal level, and Premier Binns's deputy
minister recently stepped down from his government position to
seek a Conservative nomination to run in the general election.

COMMENT

16. (SBU) A week is a long time in politics, so handicapping a
yet-to-be-called election is largely a notional exercise (except
for the Prime Minister as he tries to determine an optimal time
to wrong-foot his opponents). But using the "snapshot" we've
taken in recent weeks of some of the key ridings, personalities
and issues it does not appear at this point that there will be a
major re-alignment of party fortunes in Atlantic Canada. Each
party is confident that it can make some gains, but only the
Liberals are talking -- privately, to be sure -- of a
significant increase in seats, mainly because of perceived
regional antipathy toward Stephen Harper. On election day it
may turn out that they were whistling past the graveyard, but
they do have the advantage of incumbency and a fairly popular
leader on their side. END COMMENT

HILL

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