Sagging electoral support for Liberal government a 'great surprise' to diplomats

Most of the foreign embassies in Ottawa are writing home this week with their take on the potential outcome of Canada's federal election. They have been looking for signs of populism and disinformation, but are also scrambling to get to know the parties that may hold the balance of power in a minority Parliament.

Foreign embassies monitor battle between Liberals, Conservatives - and potential impact of minority government

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau are seen discussing their climate plans in these file photos. (Cole Burston, Adrian Wyld, Paul Chiasson, Nathan Denette / Canadian Press)

Many foreign diplomats stationed in Ottawa are putting pen to paper — or fingers to keyboards — this week to give their home governments a sense of where they believe Canada's federal election is headed.

Foreign policy and the extraordinary events unfolding overseas seem to have attracted little political notice in Canada during the campaign, but the election has generated quiet, yet intense interest among embassies in the capital.

It is different from 2015, said one long-serving envoy, who was among more than half a dozen who agreed to speak with CBC News on background, not wanting to upset or influence diplomatic relations.

The sudden, swift decline in Liberal fortunes — to the point where the result of next Monday's election may hang in the balance  — has come as "a great surprise" to diplomats, given Canada's stable economy and relative affluence.

The see-saw battle between the Liberals and Conservatives has been the subject of weekly reports to the foreign ministry of one of Canada's principal NATO allies and there is a scramble among all of them for a better understanding of the other parties that may prop up a minority.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau makes a campaign stop at Hubertushaus to take part in Oktoberfest celebrations in Mannheim, Ont., Monday, Oct. 14, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

There is, primarily among Europeans, a fascination with the high political drama of the meteoric rise — on the international scene — and potential fall of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.

"The world is paying attention to Canada and elections," said the diplomat. "Justin Trudeau was popular — so popular — and how relatively quickly, in three years, support for him went down. People are simply interested." 

The wider, perhaps more worrying, aspect of whether Canada's political landscape will be upended by anti-establishment forces has also been a major preoccupation as assessments are prepared, the diplomat added.

"All elections are important at the moment because of this populist movement and people want to see whether populism is gaining, or whether we are going back to some kind of normality," the diplomat added.

A Canadian foreign policy expert said, for the most part, no one has seen much evidence of a populist backlash.

Populism a worry

"Populism is certainly on all of their files and they're asking the question of where Canada is headed on this one," said Colin Robertson, vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. "Thus far, there's a strain of it in Canada and many of [the diplomats] say there's less populism here than in their own countries."

Many European countries have also been alert, perhaps more than most, for signs of foreign interference and election tampering.

The visceral reaction in English Canada to the publication of photos of Trudeau in both brownface and blackface startled some of the foreign missions from the Far East.

"We did not realize it would have such a strong impact on the Liberal campaign and it was such an important issue for Canadians until, like, a few days later," said a diplomat from the Asia-Pacific region. 

"I was truly amazed; shocked, in fact. Perhaps it's a culture thing. We don't know, but truly speaking we were amazed to see the impact."

Robertson said it was the moment many in the diplomatic community, both inside and outside of Ottawa, remember, even though it appeared to have had a minimal impact on the direction of the campaign.

Look at other parties

There seems to be a general acceptance among other countries that Canada is headed toward a minority government, said Robertson, and consequently each of the embassies is diving into the details of not only the Liberal and Conservative election promises, but also those of their potential partners.

They're combing the platforms of the NDP, the Green Party and the Bloc Québécois looking for clues on how each of them could affect a minority Parliament. There has been some attention paid to the People's Party of Canada, but several diplomats said they do not expect to see that party hold the balance of power.

Almost all of the envoys registered concern about how a minority government would affect Canada's climate change policy and leadership.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer gestures as he responds to a question during a campaign stop in Quebec City. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Some countries in the Far East, looking for energy security and business investment, have been drawn to the debate over pipeline politics and whether the Trans-Mountain project will be completed. 

One longtime veteran of the Ottawa diplomatic circuit expressed amazement at how the issue of Canada's debt and deficit seems to have lost its sting after years of dominating the political agenda under the former Conservative government.

The curiosity sometimes extends to the personalities.

Robertson said he was buttonholed recently by a Russian diplomat who was curious about Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland's chances of re-election.

She was barred from entering Russia after her outspoken criticism over the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and has regularly faced the wrath of the Kremlin.


Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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