WASHINGTON — If history is any guide, governments around the world are now receiving reports about the implications of potential regime-change in Canada following Monday’s election.
A fascinating peek into such diplomatic reporting is readily available now, courtesy of Wikileaks having dumped more than two million U.S. diplomatic documents onto the Internet since 2010.
The cables reveal detailed U.S. analysis the last time polls suggested a change of government in Canada: the electoral calculations, the constitutional rules following the election, strategies for engaging the next government, and the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the party entering power.
The ambassador who signed off on those cables for the last change of government in Canada says it’s a basic responsibility of diplomats to map out likely post-election scenarios.
David Wilkins was the U.S. ambassador in Ottawa when the Tories toppled the Liberals in 2006. Contacted by The Canadian Press, the George W. Bush envoy would not speculate about the current election or current embassy operations.
But he did share some thoughts about what goes on in the days before an election.
“The one thing the U.S. embassy is good at is preparing ahead of time — and getting ready for different scenarios,” said the former ambassador.
“So they’re most likely doing that. I don’t have first-hand knowledge of that, but it’s the same exercise we went through in ’05, ’06…. You make sure you’re prepared to work with whoever is elected — period. That’s the bottom line.”
His decade-old messages offer a glimpse into the dynamics of Canada’s most important foreign relationship, and all the ways a new government might lead to some remodelling of policies, without shaking the basic edifice of a relationship that includes $750 billion a year in trade and myriad social ties.
The current American administration will not comment on the contents of old Wikileaks, as a general principle, nor on what preparations might be taking place in advance of Monday’s election.
But one Washington insider said the embassy is certainly mapping out two potential implications of a Liberal government: tighter co-operation at the Paris climate talks, yet concern about the Liberal level of commitment to the anti-ISIL mission and to the international F35 fighter-jet program.
Then there’s softwood lumber.
Last week saw the expiry of an agreement that allowed a decade of peace on a perennially problematic file. Wilkins pushed for that agreement in a cable he sent on the morning of the 2006 election.
“Canada’s New Government: Opportunities and Challenges,” was the headline of his dispatch on the morning of Jan. 23, 2006, predicting the Conservative election victory hours later.
Wilkins suggested delivering a couple of early wins to help this potentially friendly new government — to give Stephen Harper a “bilateral success story,” either on softwood or the Devil’s Lake water dispute.
At the same time, Wilkins was preparing to advance American priorities. They included closer co-operation on national security, including more information-sharing at the border and integrated maritime patrols which have since been realized.
The over-arching strategy was: tread lightly.
“Relations with the U.S. will be tricky for Harper, who along with many members of his caucus has an ideological and cultural affinity for America,” said the cable, the last of many sent during the election.
“But as he has done already with many of his core social and fiscal values, he will simply have to sideline this affinity in order to not be painted as ‘selling out to the Americans’ to a skeptical Canadian public.”
Wilkins predicted Harper would be warm and cordial in his dealings with the U.S., but would also have to demonstrate an ability to get results from Washington. Unlike predecessor Paul Martin, Harper had “very little foreign experience” and would likely focus at first on close-to-home bilateral issues like softwood lumber and the border.
A recurring concern in different dispatches was whether Canadians would stay committed to the Afghanistan mission when it became clear this wasn’t peacekeeping but “a long, hard slog … (with) a share of bloodshed.” A Canadian diplomat, Glyn Berry, had been killed that week.
Harper quickly signalled his intentions. He made Kandahar his first foreign visit. Canada remained there a few more years. The U.S. has just announced it’ll be there for a few more.
Cables predicted all sorts of post-election outcomes: one said Canada’s budget surplus might be imperilled by a minority government, as opposition parties demanded spending measures.
The Martin and Bush administrations had co-operated well, in some areas. One cable described a “good cop, bad cop” Canada-U.S. routine in pushing for reforms at the United Nations.
But there were obvious public tensions. During the campaign, Paul Martin scolded the U.S. on climate change. Wilkins publicly criticized the anti-Bush tone of Martin’s campaign.
In private, the dispatches to Washington suggested the Liberal strategy might be failing — while the Liberals tried tying Harper to a scary “right-wing American agenda,” some ads were judged over the top and one had to be pulled.
But one of the clearest signs the Liberals were headed for defeat, according to a Jan. 13 cable? Some staffers had already started looking for jobs in the private sector. Others were talking about what their party needed to do to regain power.
Most American predictions were bang-on.
The first Harper minority lasted a few months longer than American diplomats expected — 33 months, compared to a Jan. 13 cable that predicted another election between 12 and 24 months.
There was an incorrect prediction that Canada’s ambassador to Washington, Frank McKenna, would return home to lead the Liberal party, and that Peter Harder might soon become head of the Canadian federal civil service.
But they got the basic call right.
“A few are beginning to speculate about a possible Conservative majority,” said the Jan. 13 note.
Alexander Panetta, The Canadian Press