Cablegate: Blue Days for Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff

Published: Thu 15 Oct 2009 09:24 PM
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Classified By: PolMinCouns Scott Bellard, reasons 1.4 (b) and (d)
1. (C) Summary. Liberal Party poll numbers continue to
decline, while the Conservatives appear in their strongest
position in at least a year. Fundraising has also slowed
down noticeably. Leader Michael Ignatieff is clearly on the
defensive, but has vowed to do a better job in shaping the
political landscape and his own image. Some insiders are
skeptical that he can do so, at least before a next election,
but see no real alternative right now for the Liberal Party.
End Summary.
2. (C) Michael Ignatieff was widely seen as the savior of
the Liberal Party of Canada, the ""Official Opposition,"" when
he took over as interim leader from the discredited
then-leader Stephane Dion in dramatic fashion in December
2008 (ref a), and was subsequently voted official leader in
early May 2009 (ref b). Urban, articulate, bilingual, and
with an impressive rolodex of contacts around the world --
including in the new Obama Administration -- Ignatieff
represented the Liberals' newest and best hope that they
could reverse their several years-long slide and emerge in
the next election -- probably, they thought, in summer or
fall 2009 -- at least with enough seats to form a minority
government and finally drive the Conservative Party of Canada
out of office. The worldwide recession, Canada's mounting
recession, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper's seeming
inability to connect viscerally with the voters -- especially
among women and in vote-rich Ontario and Quebec -- fueled the
Liberals' dream of once again serving as ""Canada's natural
governing party."" (This was, of course, before Harper's now
famous -- at least in Canada -- surprise performance of the
Beatles' ""I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends"" at the
National Arts Centre, along with Yo-Yo Ma, on October 3.)
3. (SBU) Instead, the Liberals as a party and Ignatieff as
a leader are again sliding in the polls, while the
Conservatives apparently are going from strength to strength.
In an EKOS poll released on October 14, support for the
Liberals nationwide (""if an election were held today"") among
decided voters had dropped to 25.5 pct, down from over 29 pct
only a few weeks ago (ref c). The Conservatives in the same
poll were up to 40.7 pct, which arguably could bring them a
majority government in a new election any time soon, although
the concentration of their support in the western provinces
might mean that they would only win another, albeit perhaps
stronger, minority government. In the poll, the
Conservatives and the Liberals were neck-and-neck in Quebec
at about 22 pct of support each, but -- ominously -- the
Conservatives were far ahead of the Liberals in Ontario, at
44.1 pct to 31 pct. Surprisingly, support for the
Conservatives among women was 36.7 pct versus only 26 pct for
the Liberals. Almost half of those in the EKOS poll felt
that Canada was in only a ""mild recession,"" with two-thirds
expressing the hope that their own personal financial
situation in a year's time will be ""about the same"" or
""better."" Poll after poll has shown that Canadians now put
far more trust -- usually between 14 and 20 pct more -- in PM
Harper as a leader than they do in Ignatieff, contrary to
Canadian conventional wisdom that the ruling party always
takes a hit in bad economic times.
4. Many Liberal Party insiders have privately begun to
express a feeling of ""deja vu all over again"" -- stuck with
another leader who ""just doesn't listen,"" the same flaw most
attributed to Dion. Complaints have surfaced -- most
publicly, by Liberal MP Denis Coderre (ref c) as he resigned
as the Liberal Lieutenant for Quebec and as Defence Critic
(shadow Defence Minister) -- about Ignatieff's reliance on a
handful of Toronto-based advisors, to the exclusion of all
other viewpoints, a charge that Ignatieff has rebuffed
vigorously. Liberal National Director Rocco Rossi (who,
incidentally or not, is from Toronto) admitted privately to
PolMinCouns that Ignatieff's closest advisers, like Principal
Secretary Ian Davey, do come from Toronto, but indicated that
Ignatieff didn't really listen much to them, either. ""He
knows his own mind, and the only person whose opinion he
really cares about is his wife Zsuzsanna,"" he commented.
Others have also pointed to the close-knit nature of their
relationship, while insisting that the outgoing Zsuzsanna
could be his ""secret weapon"" if ever let loose on the
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campaign trail or among the Liberal Party loyalists -- which
would, however, go against the Canadian political norm,
according to most pundits. (People say exactly the same
thing about Laureen Harper, the Prime Minister's vivacious
5. (C) Liberal Party officials now confess that Ignatieff's
long summer holiday mostly out of public sight (ref c) was,
in retrospect, a tactical error, only compounding the minor
bounce that the sitting government usually gets when
Parliament is on recess. Another mistake, in hindsight, was
canceling a highly touted trip by Ignatieff to China -- which
PM Harper has yet to visit -- in early September after
Ignatieff stunned a party gathering in Sudbury, Ontario with
the sudden news that the Liberals had finally and truly lost
""confidence"" and ""trust"" in the Conservatives and would
henceforth oppose the government. In what is now seen as yet
again a tactical mis-step, Ignatieff in a CBC Radio interview
that aired on October 10 backtracked by explaining that the
Liberals would only vote against the Conservatives on formal
confidence votes, while making case-by-case decisions on all
other legislative votes. The Liberals are apparently still
wrestling with how to vote on pending legislation to extend
Employment Insurance benefits, now in a Commons' committee,
but have indicated that they may try to delay passage once it
reaches the Liberal-dominated Senate -- mostly, to avoid
letting the Conservatives and their new-found ally on this
issue, the New Democratic Party, get the credit. They admit
that there is some risk to this strategy if voters perceive
the Liberals as standing in the way of better unemployment
coverage, however.
6. (C) To underscore worrying trends, Liberal fundraising
has plateaued, fundraiser-in-chief Rossi admitted. In the
first six months of 2009, the Liberals raised about as much
as they had in all of 2008 -- about C$5 million -- and almost
as much as the Conservatives had (C$7 million). Since then,
however, they have picked up almost no new contributions or
pledges, although they hold out hopes for some major
fundraising events in the fourth quarter of 2009. New
memberships were up by about 100,000 in 2009, according to an
official of the Office of the Official Opposition, but were
similarly concentrated in the first half of the year.
Liberal officials have estimated that approximately one
million Liberal voters simply stayed home in the October 2008
election, but are quick to note that many of them were not
actually party members.
7. (C) Many Liberals have been disappointed that
Ignatieff's communication skills -- honed as a TV journalist
in London and as a Harvard University professor -- have
failed to ignite as a politician. According to National
Director Rossi, Ignatieff himself laments his own lack of
humor, claiming ""I'm a Presbyterian with a Russian ancestry;
I live in a humor-free zone."" (Other Liberals have described
that, in small, private gatherings, Ignatieff can be both
warm and funny, and have even claimed that -- contrary to his
egghead image -- his favorite TV shows are ""Desperate
Housewives"" and ""Sex and the City."") Rossi also commented on
the intellectual Ignatieff's insistence on new substance in
each speech, rather than perfecting a good stump speech for
general use. As a result, he explained, Ignatieff actually
thinks about what he is saying as he says it in each speech,
resulting in him often looking up or at his feet as he
pondered, rather than connecting with the crowd. Rossi
indicated some frustration that Ignatieff seemed unable to
absorb helpful critiques on his delivery.
8. (C) Ignatieff has admitted publicly that the
Conservative Party had been entirely successful in ""framing""
who he is -- ""Michael Ignatieff: Just Visiting"" -- and
insisted that he needed to do more to create his own ""frame.""
Liberal Party officials are increasingly antsy for Ignatieff
to champion some specific substantive policies, a step that
the Liberals had previously avoided for fear of falling into
Stephane Dion's ""Green Shift"" disaster, in which the
Conservatives picked away relentlessly -- and successfully --
at the Liberals' then-signature policy. Numerous Canadian
columnists have noted that Canadian voters still do not know
what Ignatieff and the Liberal Party now stand for, or how
they would govern differently from the Conservatives. The
Liberal National Director under Dion, Greg Fergus, wrote in
an on-line ""Globe and Mail"" op ed article on October 6 that
it was now ""Deep Breath Time for the Liberals,"" requiring
""hard work"" and ""near pitch-perfect delivery"" by Ignatieff
and the Liberals, as well as urging a new ""thinkers'
convention"" to come up with some ""freshly minted ideas.""
Fergus told PolMinCouns that Ignatieff quickly called him
personally to praise the article and that the Liberals have
subsequently hired him back as an advisor for the conference,
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which will take place in Montreal January 14-16. Other
Liberals, however, are dismayed that the party has put off
this event until January, leaving the real possibility of
continued slump and slide during the fall. Fergus even
expressed worries that the Liberals may have entered a period
of up to as much as 6-8 years in the ""political wilderness""
of opposition.
9. (C) For the foreseeable future, however, it is Ignatieff
at the Liberal helm. Insiders say that there is no obvious
person to replace him, should he do the unthinkable and
resign before the next election -- which few now expect
before spring 2010 at the earliest (although many remain
suspicious that the Conservatives may surprise everyone by
somehow triggering one this fall). The only name that still
comes up is Bob Rae -- another 62 year old white male from
Toronto -- who has now lost the leadership sweepstakes twice
and who has privately insisted that his sole remaining
political ambition is to be Foreign Minister. Many Liberals
are concerned that the ""new blood"" of the Liberal Party is
apparently so anemic, with no real stars on the horizon --
apart from Justin Trudeau, who most describe as eminently
likeable but sadly prone to stray off script -- not the
sure-fire leadership a successful Liberal Party will need.
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