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WikiLeaks cable shows American perception of Canada's political scene

Prime Minister Stephen Harper departs Ottawa's International Airport in Ottawa, on Tuesday, August 23, 2011 on his way to Resolute, Nunavut. Harper will be on a four day tour of the north - visiting Resolute, Baker Lake, Whitehorse, Yellowknife and Haines Junction.

Sean Kilpatrick/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadia Press

Under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the Conservatives increasingly see themselves as Canada's new "natural governing party," and their chief aim last year was to avoid an election, according to a leaked cable from the U.S. embassy in Ottawa.

The January, 2010, document, released by the organization WikiLeaks and signed by ambassador David Jacobson, provides a wide-ranging assessment of Canada's federal political scene with a list of the country's top five priorities for that year.

Beyond holding onto power, the Tories' other objectives were to grow the economy, find a resolution to "buy America" provisions in the U.S. stimulus policy, alter the public perception that they were doing little on climate change and end the country's military mission in Afghanistan "as gracefully as possible," the cable claims.

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Despite the Tories' recent political success, diplomatic staff noted that the party was weak in Quebec, in the country's three largest cities, and with women and immigrants. In a sign of some prescience, it noted that they "have made some in-roads" recently with all of these groups.

It came as a surprise that the country was not plunged into an election in the fall of 2009, as the NDP had not been expected to back the Tories to ensure employment insurance reform would pass Parliament, the document said. The leftwing party, however, now had no further reason to prop up the government.

"How long into 2010 the Conservatives can face off the opposition parties is a crapshoot; all four parties in Parliament must continually re-examine how well they might fare in a new election and craft their short-term tactics accordingly," it read.

It noted that the Liberals under Michael Ignatieff suffered "many self-inflicted wounds," which could play well for the Conservatives at election time. Both the Grits and the NDP have also failed to find a winning issue, gaining little traction on the treatment of detainees in Afghanistan, it said, adding that the governing party, however, did not want to be blamed for causing an election.

On the economic file, the document said Tories had no "bold measures" at the ready to improve the economy, but were more likely to stay the course in hopes improvements internationally would help out.

"The Conservatives will need to demonstrate slow but steady progress on the economy and to claim credit even when it is not necessarily due to them," it said.

While the government would have to be seen as taking a pro-active approach on climate change, it was unlikely to unveil any "big, sexy initiatives," and had a difficult balancing act. Luckily, the cable notes, the Grits were so damaged by Stéphane Dion's unpopular carbon tax proposal in 2008 that they were unlikely to propose any alternatives.

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"After an almost invisible role in Copenhagen, the Conservatives will still want to portray themselves as taking some pro-active steps on the environment to counteract public impressions that Canada is merely following a U.S. lead (however true this may be)."

The Tories' final priority would be a "graceful" exit from Afghanistan by the end of 2011.

There is one caveat on the note: Everything could change were the Tories to win a majority.

On the heels of Jean Chretien's refusal to join the 2003 invasion of Iraq, American diplomats were eagerly looking forward to his retirement and cheering the prospect of a Paul Martin premiership, newly released diplomatic cables reveal.

In the documents, published by the organization WikiLeaks, the United States embassy in Ottawa painted an unflattering picture of the Mr. Chretien during his final year in office, portraying him as a calculating political operator, but lacking a "vision" for his country, with a "reactive and ambivalent" approach to policy-making.

In particular, the embassy took exception to what it termed Mr. Chretien's "bizarre anti-American public musings," including his criticism of president George W. Bush's management of the economy at a G8 summit.

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On Iraq, diplomatic staff suggested the PM was attempting to appease the various factions in his caucus while simultaneously avoiding upsetting the U.S.

Early in 2003, the embassy seemed confident Canada would back an invasion to topple Saddam Hussein even if the United Nations did not, but wrote that Mr. Chretien had a penchant for delaying decisions until they were absolutely necessary.

A cable from April of that year, by which time the invasion was under-way, described the Liberal government's policy on the subject as "haphazard and clumsy." After deciding not to take part in the war, Mr. Chretien then attempted to appease the United States by asking the House of Commons to endorse a motion wishing the U.S. and its allies "a quick victory with minimum casualties," it said.

A further missive, signed by then-ambassador Paul Cellucci, suggested Mr. Chretien's seeming frostiness to the U.S. was a political ploy to create headaches for those in caucus who would push him out the door early.

"In this regard, we should not underestimate Chretien's capacity to manipulate the system if it serves his purpose, including to prorogue the Parliament until after the November election and/or sticking around as PM some three months after Paul Martin is elected Liberal Leader," he wrote in June 2003.

The same cable portrayed Mr. Martin as "pro-active," singling out his "pragmatic" desire to warm relations with the U.S. and his plan to share gas-tax revenue with the country's "beleaguered, cash-hungry cities."

It further suggested Mr. Martin would do away with some of his predecessor's legacy initiatives -- including the de-criminalization of marijuana and reform to the financing of political parties.

The missive also engaged in a few bizarre musings of its own, suggesting the entire Liberal leadership race -- which, at the time, pitted Mr. Martin against then-deputy prime minister John Manley and heritage minister Sheila Copps -- had been contrived by the prime minister's office to give the appearance of a genuine contest rather than a "coronation" of Mr. Martin.

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About the Author
Washington correspondent

Adrian Morrow covers U.S. politics from Washington, D.C. Previously he was The Globe's Ontario politics reporter. He's covered news, crime and sports for The Globe since 2010. He won the National Newspaper Award for politics reporting in 2016. More

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