The whistleblowing website WikiLeaks has released sensitive U.S. diplomatic cables that reveal their behind-the-scenes take on Canada’s party leaders — on the eve of the federal election.
The cables released to several media outlets cover a six-year period that ended in early 2010. They not only provide a distillation of media accounts on key Canadian political events by U.S. officials, but include accounts from Canadian party insiders.
Among the revelations included in the diplomatic documents are accounts of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s "vindictive pettiness," Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff’s "blue days" as leader and New Democrat Leader Jack Layton’s "mouse of a party."
A cable from March 2009 that is classified as confidential states the Bloc Québécois is "well-entrenched" and plays a "spoiler role" against future Liberal or Conservative majority governments.
Calls from Radio-Canada/CBC to the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa, where many of the cables originated, were not immediately returned.
A 10-page brief by officials in the U.S. Embassy in Canada’s capital describes Harper’s governing style in detail.
It calls him a "master political strategist" whose reputation was left "somewhat tattered" after his 2008 attempt to abolish public financing for all political parties.
The cable was written a month after Harper prorogued Parliament to avoid the fall of the government on a budget-related confidence vote.
"Relying on an extremely small circle of advisers and his own instincts, he has played the game of high-stakes, partisan politics well, but his reputation for decisiveness and shrewdness has been tarnished by a sometimes vindictive pettiness," says the cable dated Jan. 2, 2009.
Harper called controlling
The document also notes that despite years in the political sphere, Harper "remains an enigma to most Canadians [including many Conservatives]."
It also includes references to Harper’s controlling ways within the party. According to the document, a minister of state confessed privately to a U.S. Embassy official that he "did not ‘dare’ to deviate from his preapproved text," despite events having "overtaken his speech."
Citing discussions with Conservative caucus members, the document says the members said they were "often out of the loop on the prime minister’s plans" and many senior Tories said they were stunned to hear about the plan to ban public financing of political parties.
The lengthy cable also critiques Harper for concentrating heavily on short-term election planning, giving the government a "sometimes improvisational air."
Another cable dated March 23, 2009, speaks to strains between the Conservatives and Quebec following the prime minister’s attacks on the Liberal-NDP coalition pact, which alienated many Quebec voters.
"PM Harper reportedly blames Quebec Premier Jean Charest for the Conservatives’ failure to win a parliamentary majority," the cable says.
It also says Conservative Party insiders "repeatedly chafed" at the lack of obvious talent within the pool of Quebec’s Conservative MPs, leaving important portfolios to "less-than-obvious choice MPs."
A number of cables also weigh in on the state of the Liberal Party and Ignatieff.
A document from early 2010 says the Liberal party’s "muted" response to Harper’s prorogation of Parliament suggested a "lack of energy and hands-on leadership."
"The Liberals face a tough road ahead if they hope to beat the Conservatives in the next federal election – whether in 2010 or 2011," says the unclassified cable dated Jan. 5, 2010.
Another cable dated October, 2009, titled "Blue Days for Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff," cites conversations with then Liberal Party national director Rocco Rossi, who told U.S. Embassy officials that Ignatieff didn’t really listen to advisers.
"He knows his own mind, and the only person whose opinion he really cares about is his wife Zsuzsanna," the cable quotes Rossi as saying.
Rossi, a longstanding Liberal, quit his role as national director in mid-December 2009 to run in Toronto's mayoral race. He recently switched parties, announcing in February 2011 his intention to run for the Ontario Progressive Conservatives in the October provincial election.
CBC News tried to reach Rossi for comment but he was not immediately available.
Another former party official is quoted as expressing worries that the Liberals may have entered a period of up to as much as six to eight years in the "political wilderness" of opposition.
The cable also describes Ignatieff as "urbane, articulate, bilingual and with an impressive Rolodex of contacts around the world – including in the new Obama administration."
Few Bloc, NDP observations
Rossi is also quoted as saying Ignatieff insisted on having new substance in each speech rather than perfecting a good stump speech for general use.
The result, he says, was Ignatieff was forced to think about what he was saying in each speech, causing him to often look up or at his feet while pondering, instead of connecting with the crowd.
"Rossi indicated some frustration that Ignatieff seemed unable to absorb helpful critiques on his delivery," the cable says.
Few of the American documents included observations of the Bloc and NDP.
In an unclassified April 2005 cable discussing how then-Prime Minister Paul Martin might hang on to power, an American official states that no matter what happens, Layton's New Democrats will come out winners, since his "mouse of a party" has "gotten the attention of the lions."
"In the battle for Canada’s so-called progressive voters, Layton has finally presented himself and his party as having power and influence in Ottawa," the cable goes on to say.
Another 2007 cable, quoting a PMO staffer, describes the NDP as living "for small victories on the margins, and this may be enough."
The Bloc is characterized in a March 2009 cable classified as confidential as "well-entrenched" and as playing a "spoiler role against future Liberal or Conservatives majority governments."
"There does not appear to be any prospect of breaking up or giving up," the cable states. "The Québécois retain a reputation as highly strategic voters."