Cablegate: Canada by-Elections: Can Liberals Arrest Slump?

DE RUEHOT #0858/01 3091957
O 051955Z NOV 09



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1. (SBU) Summary: Voters go to the polls in four federal
by-elections in Quebec, Nova Scotia, and British Columbia on
November 9 (ref a). Although the contests will not change the
balance of power in the House of Commons, pundits are looking for
signs that the federal Liberals can pull themselves together in the
face of slumping national polls - even though the Liberals are
unlikely to win any of the four seats. A competitive Liberal
finish in at least one of the two Quebec by-elections would go some
way toward putting the party's recent troubles in Quebec (ref b)
behind it. On October 27, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff hired
veteran strategist Peter Donolo as his new Chief of Staff in an
effort to "right the Liberal ship." For their part, the surging
Conservatives are sitting pretty, with nothing to lose and
something to gain through at least second place showings in two
ridings, a chance to reclaim a traditional seat, and a crack at an
upset. End summary.

2. (U) On October 4, PM Stephen Harper called two federal
by-elections in Quebec, and one each in British Columbia and Nova
Scotia, for November 9. The Bloc Quebecois held the Quebec
"ridings" (districts) of Hochelaga (Montreal) and
Montmagny-L'Islet-Kamouraska-Riviere-du-Loup. In British Columbia,
the New Democratic Party (NDP) held New Westminster-Coquitlam
(Vancouver), and Conservative-turned-Independent MP Bill Casey held
the rural Nova Scotia riding of Cumberland-Colchester-Musquodoboit


3. (U) The two vacant Quebec seats have been Bloc Quebecois
strongholds since 1993, and their most recent incumbents had won
significant pluralities in 2008. In Hochelaga (Montreal), the Bloc
won the seat with 49.6% of the vote in 2008, to the second-place
Liberal with 20.6%. In the current race, Bloc candidate Daniel
Paille, a former Quebec Minster of Industry and Trade and now a
professor at Montreal's highly regarded economic graduate school
(HEC), has emphasized economic development, social security,
language, and culture. According to local media, the main fight is
for second place in this urban, strongly sovereignist suburban
riding. His principal challenger is Liberal candidate Robert
David, a university lecturer. David's campaign has emphasized both
social issues and his close friendship with federal Liberal leader
Michael Ignatieff, whom he met while studying public administration
at Harvard University. The Conservatives and the NDP have run
aggressive campaigns. The Conservatives have relied heavily on
telephone and recorded messages promoting the government's economic
stimulus program, while the NDP has underscored its support of the
French language, including sponsoring a recent debate in Ottawa
reinforcing the need for immigrants to Quebec to learn French
"first and foremost," and fielding a number of French-speaking NDP
MPs in the riding, including the party's sole federal Quebec MP,
Thomas Mulcair (Outremont), trade critic Peter Julian, critic for
the francophonie Claude Gravelle, official languages critic Yvon
Godin, and the youngest MP in the Commons, Niki Ashton.

4. (SBU) In Montmagny-L'Islet-Kamouraska-Riviere-du-Loup, the
Conservatives reportedly believe they have a chance to retake the
sprawling, rural eastern Quebec riding after sixteen years in Bloc
hands, despite polls that have the party well behind the Bloc
Quebecois. The Conservatives finished second in the riding -- with
30% to the Bloc's 46% -- in the 2008 federal election, but managed
to halve the Bloc's plurality over its score in 2006. The
candidates' ability to deliver federal funding for the riding and
infrastructure has dominated the race, as well as constituency
issues. Conservative candidate Bernard Genereux, a local mayor and
businessman, is running against well-connected Bloc insider Nancy
Gagnon, a communications advisor to Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe and
a former assistant to Bloc House leader Pierre Paquette. Observers
believe Liberal candidate Marcel Catellier to be a distant third,
but Quebec Liberal lieutenant Marc Garneau has dropped in to help
campaign, as well as Garneau's immediate predecessor, Denis
Coderre, who spent October 26 campaigning in the riding in what
many saw as a possible sign that Liberal rifts may be healing.
AmConGen Quebec City contacts have noted with interest that Prime
Minister Stephen Harper is the only federal party leader who has
not visited the riding (so far) in this campaign, and predicted a
low turn-out (as is the norm for by-elections generally).

OTTAWA 00000858 002.2 OF 003


5. (SBU) In British Columbia, the race for New
Westminster-Coquitlam is tight, according to AmConGen Vancouver
contacts. The local media has predicted a "photo finish" between
the NDP and the Conservatives, each of which has held the riding at
various points in recent years. The NDP recaptured it in 2006, and
held it in 2008 by a slim 3% over the Conservative candidate (41.8%
to 38.8%). In 2008, the Liberal candidate trailed at 11.2%, and
the Liberal candidate in this race is "a relative unknown,"
according to one local commentator. Both the NDP and Conservative
candidates have municipal political experience. A local EKOS poll
suggests that women may sway the vote in this race, but it is still
unclear whether their votes will flow to the NDP due to its strong
stance on women's issues, or to the Conservatives' "tough on crime"
female candidate. The Conservatives' law and order agenda played
well in the riding in 2008. For the NDP, the race has also been
an opportunity to test the impact of its opposition to the blending
of the federal and provincial sales taxes into one harmonized sales
tax (HST) in the province, according to NDP national director Brad
Lavigne. The province will implement the HST on July 1, 2010.
Lavigne underscored that the NDP is the sole party unequivocally
against the tax, and the party hopes that public anger will
motivate voters to vote.


6. (U) Observers in the rural riding of
Cumberland-Colchester-Musquodoboit Valley (Nova Scotia) will look
to see whether traditional Conservative voters return to the fold.
The seat is a longtime Conservative stronghold, but voters
re-elected Conservative-turned-Independent MP Bill Casey with 69%
of the vote in the 2008 federal election after PM Harper expelled
him from caucus in 2007 for voting against the federal budget.
Strong Conservative support on November 4 in the House of Commons
for a Conservative private member's bill to abolish the long-gun
registry could play well in the rural riding. The federal NDP is
reportedly anxious to test the coattails of the popular Nova Scotia
NDP, which won a historic majority government in the province in
June. The Nova Scotia NDP won the staunchly Conservative riding of
neighboring Cumberland North in June, and some local media have
suggested that the NDP may have surged in the late stages of the
race (based on a strong provincial NDP ground-game, and residual
animosity toward PM Harper over Casey's expulsion) and could be on
track for an upset win. The Liberal candidate has also attempted
to capitalize on Casey's ejection, but local Liberal organization
is reportedly weak after the June provincial election, in which it
won only 11 seats in the 52-seat provincial legislature. Federal
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff has visited the riding to bolster
support in a campaign that regional media suggest will turn on very
local issues.


7. (SBU) In Ottawa, Ignatieff has moved to lift morale in the face
of sliding national polls that shown Liberal support even below
that for his predecessor, Stephane Dion. An October 26 Ipsos Reid
poll reported Liberal support at 25%, compared to 26.3% for Dion in
the 2008 election. In the same poll, the Conservatives surged to
40% nationally, and to 41% to the Liberals' 32% even in the Liberal
heartland of Ontario. On October 27, Ignatieff shook up his inner
circle, replacing loyalist Ian Davey (one of his "+2" for his
February 19 meeting with President Obama, as well as for a October
23 lunch with Ambassador Jacobson) with Liberal PM Jean
Chretien-era strategist veteran Peter Donolo as Chief of Staff.
The turn-over was confused, with Davey's romantic partner,
Ignatieff's Communications Director Jill Fairbrother, publicly
denying the appointment while Ignatieff simultaneously announced it
to reporters. Davey reportedly remains in Ignatieff's office as an

8. (SBU) Donolo left a partnership with leading polling firm "The
Strategic Counsel" to join Ignatieff, and is described as savvy,

OTTAWA 00000858 003.2 OF 003

experienced, and well plugged-in to the press corps. Observers
credited Donolo with crafting focused messaging for Chretien with
populist appeal to "Main Street" voters. In public comments,
Liberal MPs expressed relief at Donolo's arrival, with one
observing that "we feel like a fever has broken... we're on the
mend." National President of the Liberal Party Alf Apps noted that
"nuts and bolts" membership and fundraising groundwork has already
been done, but the focus now has to shift to content and messaging:
"Peter understands what it takes to put the winning formula back
together again." Donolo insisted publicly that he wants to take a
low profile for the time being. Conservative Party contacts have
commented privately to PolMinCouns, however, that Donolo's
experience was exclusively in government, never in opposition - a
very different set of skills.


9. (SBU) The upcoming by-elections are a mixed bag and -- given
the traditionally lower voter turn-out in by-election races --
appear likely to turn less on national than on local issues. With
nothing to lose, the surging Conservatives are sitting pretty,
hoping for at least second place showings in target suburban and
Quebec ridings, a chance to reclaim a traditional seat, and a crack
at an upset. In contrast, the Liberals similarly have no seats to
lose, but are under pressure to show that they have turned the
corner, particularly in Quebec. Expectations for Donolo are
exceptionally - perhaps impossibly -- high, but his arrival is too
recent to have a genuine impact on the Liberals' fortunes in the
by-elections. The NDP will be looking for confirmation that its
recent about-face on supporting the minority Conservatives in the
House of Commons has not alienated its traditional base. End

10. (U) This message was in collaboration with AmConGens Quebec
City, Montreal, Halifax, and Vancouver.

© Scoop Media

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