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IdentifierCreatedClassificationOrigin
09OTTAWA689 2009-09-04 17:29:00 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Ottawa
Cable title:  

JOHN WILLIAMSON: NEW DIRECTOR OF COMMUNICATIONS

Tags:   PGOV PREL PINR KPAO CA 
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1. (C) Summary: In an August 27 shake-up of the Prime
Minister's Office (PMO) senior political staff, Prime
Minister Stephen Harper named John Williamson as the new
Director of Communications, the fourth in as many years. A
strong fiscal conservative, Williamson does not have a high
public profile, despite his six-year presidency of the
Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) and serving as
editorialist at the National Post newspaper. CTF's success
in reaching out directly to taxpayers, bypassing traditional
media outlets, likely played a strong role in his selection
since the Conservative Party has emphasized this tactic
recently. End Summary.



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A CAUTIOUS BACKGROUND PLAYER


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2. (C) Williamson has been a member of Harper's inner circle
since 2002 when he was part of Harper's campaign to assume
leadership of the Canadian conservative movement. However,
neither then nor later did he figure as a key decision-maker
in Harper's inner circle, according to media and political
commentators. Embassy staff who had direct interaction with
Williamson while he was CTF's federal director described him
as a "lightweight" and as "nervous and cautious" in his media
appearances. He seldom strayed from his talking points and
seemed more comfortable out of the spotlight. Political
bloggers believe he will likely play a "background role" as
director of communications and avoid the brunt of day-to-day
questioning by the press. While the press is reporting that
Williamson is replacing Kory Teneycke in the PMO, he appears
to be assuming senior advisor Carolyn Stewart-Olsen's role as
the principal director of communications strategy. As part
of the PMO shake-up, Harper also announced that Dmitri Soudas
will be the chief spokesman and lead press briefings for the
PMO, not Williamson.



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A FOCUS ON CONSERVATIVE POLICY RATHER THAN OPERATIONS


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3. (U) A native of New Brunswick, since 2003 Williamson has
served as a research fellow with two established conservative
think-tanks, The Fraser Institute and the Manning Centre for
Building Democracy, and as federal director of the CTF, a
lobbying organization for lower taxes and less government
spending. Most recently, he has been a Chevening Scholar at
the London School of Economics since 2008 and is currently
finishing his dissertation. In his occasional National Post
op-ed columns, Williamson was a consistent critic of the
Harper government's fiscal policies and the increasing
federal deficit, decrying the government's stimulus plan and
increased levels of spending. In media and public
appearances as CTF federal director, Williamson focused his
criticisms more on the spending programs than on lowering
taxes. Neither as lobbyist or editorialist has Williamson
offered new initiatives or operational advice for the
Conservative Party. Rather, he has stayed comfortably in the
"well-worn paths" of "less spending and smaller government,"
according to newspaper editorialists.



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EFFORTS TO BYPASS TRADITIONAL MEDIA


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4. (C) Conservative Party executive director Dan Hilton told
Pol MinCouns recently that the Conservative Party is
continuing efforts to speak directly to voters and expand its
social networking web-based communications. He mentioned
Qsocial networking web-based communications. He mentioned
specifically the Conservative Party's desire to emulate the
success of the Obama campaign's email lists and grassroots
organization. A major CTF strategy has been to bypass
national media to broadcast its messages to its members and
the public through regional media, talk radio, and direct
email. While Williamson's appointment caught much of the
Ottawa media by surprise, this dovetailing of communications
strategy by the CTF and the Conservative Party likely pushed
Williamson's name up the short-list.



5. (C) Comment: The selection of John Williamson, in
conjunction with the highly unpopular (with the press) Dmitri
Soudas, as the new communications team in the PMO emphasizes
Harper's dismissive attitude toward the Parliamentary Press
Gallery and will not improve his already poor relations with
it. Press reports that Williamson was Harper's third choice

OTTAWA 00000689 002 OF 002


for the position are not surprising given the demands of the
job and the increasing likelihood of a federal election
within the next six months, and possibly six weeks. More
experienced conservative communications strategists likely
are avoiding a position that has a high risk of ending their
career should the Conservatives lose. Williamson may serve a
similarly short time in the position as his predecessors
since Harper will have a wider field from which to choose if
he wins.

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