Kalen Lumsden is a JD candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.
On the eve of Canada’s federal election, the CBC published two U.S. diplomatic cables obtained by Wikileaks on federal party leaders. Both written in 2009, the cables address perceptions and characterizations of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and former leader of the official opposition, Michael Ignatieff. In light of the election results, how do the cables stand up?
Written on January 2, 2009, in reaction to P.M. Harper’s first prorogation of parliament, one cable describes how his reputation as a “peerless political chess-master” was in tatters after his proposal to eliminate the per-vote subsidy for political parties threatened his minority government. Now, with a new majority, this proposal is expected to quickly become law, vindicating his earlier position and restoring his reputation.
The cables also highlight P.M. Harper’s tight control of Conservative party messaging and his constant focus on election planning. The recent election results have demonstrated the success of this strategy.
Michael Ignatieff is presented as struggling to control the presentation of his image and wrestling with when to pull the trigger on a non-confidence vote. Given the election results, the cable’s documentation of Ignatieff’s struggles to stay on top of the polls and maintain the confidence of his party appears prescient.
Amusingly, both leaders were characterized as keeping their own confidences and as closed to outside advice. As well, both leaders’ spouses were seen as charismatic and sympathetic counterparts and potentially beneficial on the campaign trail. Zsuzsanna Zsohar was seen as outgoing and a “secret weapon” to Ignatieff, while Laureen Harper was termed “vivacious.” In spite of their perceived utility, entrenched Canadian norms discourage spouses actively campaigning.
The cables largely predicted the current leadership discussion underway now that Ignatieff has resigned and the search for an interim Liberal party leaders has begun. Written in October 2009, the cables state that there was no obvious replacement for Ignatieff, even as his popularity waned. Only Bob Rae and Justin Trudeau’s names came up then and nearly two years later their candidacy is still being actively discussed. The cables dismiss Bob Rae as an unlikely choice for permanent party leader because he is the same age as Ignatieff and has already lost two Liberal leadership races.
As a technology, Wikileaks has the potential to impact many aspects of elections, from coverage to outcomes. But, released in the middle of a busy news week, with election coverage going full-tilt, Osama Bin Laden’s death, and just after tax day, it’s unlikely the leaks had any impact on the election results, especially as they contained no hidden scandal and mostly aligned with the media portrayal of the leaders. The leaks do reveal some of the political background that rarely makes the newspapers and remain a potential source for future controversy as the majority of the cables have yet to be released.