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The ONW Salon: What Do The By-election Wins Mean?

Susanna Kelley (Moderator):  The Liberals won three of four by-elections on Monday, including in South Surrey-White Rockthe first time they've won in this area since 1949. Still, the Conservatives held on to their seat in Saskatchewan, and the Liberal vote share in three of four ridings went down. What do the results mean for all three parties?


Will Stewart:

By-elections are one of those funny things in politics. When you win, it is of course a massive vote of confidence for the party that wins. The media breathlessly reports that the victory is either proof positive of a massive change in government is about to happen or that their existing majority government is set to rule for decades to come.

So let’s take all of this commentary this week with a grain of salt, especially that of my (rightfully) gloating friend Richard from the Liberals.

We know who won last night, but who lost is up for debate.

Of course, the Liberals held their seat in Bonavista-Burin-Trinity, which was never really in question, formerly held by the Liberal cabinet Minister Judy Foote in Newfoundland and Labrador. The Liberals also held onto their seat in Scarborough-Agincourt, which also was not really in question.

Gerry Ritz's old seat was held by the Conservatives in the Saskatchewan riding of Battlefords—Lloydminster. No real issues to discuss there. Two wins for the Liberals, one for the Conservatives, all predictable.

The riding that got the most attention was the Liberal victory in the BC riding of South Surrey-White Rock, where the Liberals took a seat away from the Conservatives. At first glance it would appear that this is a big victory for the Liberals and a real embarrassment for the Conservatives.

The Conservatives, fresh off the victory of Andrew Scheer as leader, have now lost two by-elections to the Liberals this fall, with the other one in the Quebec riding of Lac-Saint-Jean. Conventional wisdom, as well as my own personal belief, is that by-elections afford the electorate an opportunity to pass judgment on the sitting government without the fear or complications of changing the government.

We typically find that we have lower voter turnout, which means those who are mad and motivated (typically conservatives) by the dislike of the government will come out while those content with the government see no need to venture to the polls when the election will have no impact on the party in power.

The fact that the Liberals won over the Conservatives in BC is a problem for the Conservatives. Not only because the people there like the government, but because of what is also true: they did not like the Conservative message enough to capture more votes.

Public opinion polls tell us that Scheer did not get the post leadership bounce that new leaders typically get. And now with two by-election losses for the blue team, the CPC should be wondering just what it is that it has to do to win.

They have spent the fall bashing the government on ethical issues too numerous to type here, they have attacked on fiscal issues that people don't seem to care about, and the litany of broken promises, or promised not yet achieved, is growing by the day. Yet the Liberals keep winning.

We can assume from the words and visuals of the Conservatives ad campaign that they will be trying to win in 2019 with a narrative that paints the Liberals as elites and out of touch with real Canadians.

Tax shelters, off shore accounts, numbered companies, forgotten villas, all painted against the backdrop of tax hikes for small business and professionals alike being used as proof points. But yet here we are in the midst of the scandals and yet the Liberals are winning more seats, not bleeding support. Today will be a difficult day at CPC HQ.


Richard Mahoney:

I agree with much of what Will has said above. By-elections are usually a risk free way for citizens to send a message to their government to improve their performance— risk free because you send that message without changing the government. As Will also points out, this is the second recent by-election gain the Liberals have had from the Conservatives.

If one had listened to Conservative supporters and MPs recently, one would have thought that there was great dissatisfaction across the country with the Prime Minister and his government. Apparently, that message, the one Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer calls a “positive message” is not resonating.

The win in Surrey is in a seat the Conservatives have held since the Seventies, and the Liberals have not held since the 1940s! The suburban Lower Mainland of British Columbia is a place the Liberals would look to gain in, given their agenda of a focus on helping the middle class, with a plan to help Canadians combat climate change.

The recent win in Lac St. Jean is potentially even more instructive. Not only did the Liberals pick up a seat that they have not held since the days when the elder Trudeau was Prime Minister, they picked it up in a riding that should be prime ground for both Conservatives and New Democrats if they want to make progress in Quebec—a “bleu” riding where Quebec nationalism always rides strong. The results tell us that Andrew Scheer’s so-called “positive” message is not resonating outside his constituencies, nor does it seem that Jagmeet Singh is resonating with anyone anywhere in the country, at least so far.

So by-elections don't change a lot of things. But they do tell us a couple of things: if there is anger in the land against the incumbent government and whether new leaders such as Singh and Scheer are making progress. By that standard, it is a tough day at CPC and NDP headquarters, and the Prime Minister and his team should get back to making headway on their agenda, knowing they are making some progress.


Tom Parkin:

Well obviously Richard gets crowing rights because the headline news is that the Liberals picked up a seat—which is good news for any party, any time.

But among the four, South Surrey-West Rock was the only one that was every really in play. Bonavista-Burin-Trinity, in Newfoundland, is perhaps the safest Liberals seat in Canada. Judy Foote took 80% there in 2015. Scarborough-Agincourt in suburban Toronto is also a safe seat—one the Liberals even won during their 2011 wipeout. And Kindersley-Lloydminster in Western Saskatchewan is similarly safe for the Conservatives, who took over 60% of the vote there even while losing it the election.

Those match-ups tell us nothing. But South Surrey-White Rock might be revealing.

A media narrative seems to have emerged that South Surrey-White Rock is some hardcore Conservative riding. It’s not. The riding was created only before the 2015 election. And in that contest the Liberals were only about 1500 votes behind, coming in at almost 42% of the vote while the Conservatives took 44% and the NDP took 10%.

South Surrey-West Rock is a wealthier suburban area with a higher-than-average income and a population with almost 80% European ancestry, unusually high for a Vancouver-area riding. Only seven per cent trace their ancestry to China and less than six per cent to India or other South Asian countries.

None of the demographic opportunities offered by Jagmeet Singh are in play. Clearly the NDP decided to save scarce resources for future fights and not waste them.

It was a low turnout by-election, so resources and name recognition matter. The name was Gordie Hogg, a former Minister in the Christy Clark government and a former mayor of Surrey. No doubt the Liberals threw central resources at the election. For sure, one of those key resources is Justin Trudeau.

Trudeau—and his socks—have reversed past practices and eagerly campaigned (at public expense) in targeted by-elections.

Liberal partisans like Justin Trudeau and they will come out to see him—and his socks—when he comes to town—at public expense. Trudeau and the Attorney General—with the publicly paid security in tow—both headlined a well-attended rally on Saturday night.

Andrew Scheer holds no similar sway with his partisans—no big rally was held (at public cost or otherwise). Their candidate had no big name and she got nominated a full week later that Hogg, who was nominated only two days after the by-election was called. Not being prepared is an avoidable mistake.

The star power of Trudeau has been long known. The drabness of Scheer is being established. Singh’s energy and pull-power, however, is still untested and unknown.

Singh has been touring the country and bringing in big crowds. But he tends to draw a younger, more ethically diverse crowd that (I would suspect) tends to rent or own a small condo, not own a Vancouver home. Nothing yesterday tested whether he can coalesce his target demographic into a win.


Will Stewart:

So clearly the Conservatives are losers today, and the Liberals are winners. But I do submit that New Democrats are the ones who should be the most worried about the results in BC. For them, this is a crisis, not a mere expected loss.

No, the NDP did not hold any of the ridings, and no they were not expected to contest in any of them, but here is the big issue. Their support plummeted that night in that riding. Their support levels were cut in half Monday night from 10% to about 5% of the popular vote.

The trouble is that this is the exact type of riding that we were told that the NDP would compete and win in. Specifically, we were told that they would reclaim support in Quebec, which has not happened; we were told they would compete in 416-905 in vote rich Ontario, and that did not happen Monday night (and living here I see no evidence of it); and we were told that they would begin to make further gains in BC suburbs, which is exactly where they took a big hit Monday night, despite Tom's demographics-based excuses.

My fellow panelists would be right, in a sense, that the Conservatives should be worried today. But while I acknowledge above that my ever-intelligent participants in the Salon are right, the NDP has much more to worry about.

In most cases, the CPC vote went up in each riding: Newfoundland, GTA, and Saskatchewan. So it is not all doom and gloom at the CPC as Richard suggests. But I like it when they are arrogant about wins.

The Liberals, and their popular local candidate in BC, essentially defeated the Conservatives with NDP support. The drop in NDP support almost perfectly aligns with the increase in Liberal support pushing them over the top. The Conservatives may have lost the seat, but it was the erosion in the NDP support in this riding that saw the Liberals vault over the Conservatives to win.

The NDP lost 5% of the popular vote, and the Liberals won this time out by 5% of the popular vote. The Liberal slide to the left is killing the NDP.

This should not come as a surprise. We have seen the exact same thing in Ontario with the Ontario Liberals there. Guided for a while by the same Gerry Butts now guiding Trudeau, the Liberals have successfully kept the NDP in check by moving the party to the left.

This fact was painfully driven home in the 2014 general election in Ontario where the NDP were stalled, gaining no seats, in an election that many believed could be a "Jack Layton" moment.

If we believe the narrative that by-elections are an opportunity to punish the government without the consequences of a change in the governing party, then the protest rich support of the NDP should be increased not decreased.

Conservatives have a massive interest in a strong NDP. More three-way races where all parties are competitive help the Conservatives. The BC by-election last night shows exactly why. The Conservatives did well! They took 42% of the vote. In a strong three-way race, or even a race where the NDP can get over 10%, that is a Conservative win.

The CPC have reason for optimism. The same is not true for the NDP. In all six of the by-elections since Singh has been elected leader of the federal NDP his party's share of the popular vote has declined.


Richard Mahoney:

I think Tom brings up a fair point when he suggests that Liberals had an advantage in a riding like Surrey-West Rock in their local candidate. It appears that they really did their homework locally by recruiting strong candidates with a local following. That helped in many of these ridings, which is sometimes hard to do in a by-election scenario. But it certainly appears that the Trudeau candidates were successful because they are well known in their communities, worked hard with their grassroots volunteers, ran strong local campaigns with local commitments and priorities, and stayed positive—all while reminding their constituents why they are better off now than they were two years ago.

And this is where it gets difficult for Singh and Scheer. Canada has the lowest unemployment in a decade; half a million jobs have been created by the economy since 2015. The government has enhanced the Canada Pension Plan, a historic reform that will benefit future generations of Canadians. Trudeau also commands respect on the world stage, has provided global leadership on the plan to fight climate change and set out an alternative to leaders like President Trump. All this adds up to a reasonably popular government with an already impressive record that’s focused on families and the middle class.

Yes, they have made mistakes, and will make more, as all governments do. Throw in some hard-working locally relevant candidates successfully sharing that message and what you have is a tough set of facts for Scheer and Singh to beat. That, more than anything else, accounts for the results of these recent by-elections.


Tom Parkin:

I know, Will, that you are anxious to convince others that there’s another party that did worse than the Conservatives, but it just ain’t so. The NDP is low on resources after two years of interim leadership and it would have been foolhardy to dump scarce resources into ridings where there is no chance of a win.

Without any lift from a media buy from the central tour of a national campaign and with no local resources, the NDP vote declined. That’s the price of not wasting money. There’s no mystery in it. National polls continue to show the three major parties virtually unchanged from the last election.

On the other hand, one would have thought that in a home owning, white suburb the Conservatives should have increased their vote.

Without doubt, Richard wins the debate today—the Liberals had one seat they could turn to a win. It was a mano-a-mano battle with the Conservatives. The Liberals controlled the timing. They have a more appealing leader. They focused resources (some from the taxpayer). They had a name candidate. So they took the win. Well played.

In more affluent urban and suburban areas, it’s hard to figure why people would turn against the Liberals.

Let’s see what happens in a working-class, ethnically diverse by-election. That will be very interesting. And hopefully the NDP will have the money saved up (from not spending unwisely) to run a full-on campaign.


Richard Mahoney is a lawyer with deep experience in politics and governance.  He is a former senior advisor to the Rt. Hon Paul Martin, a former Campaign Chair and President of the Ontario Liberal Party. Will Stewart is Managing Principal at Navigator, served as Chief of Staff to several Ontario Ministers and often appears as a national affairs commentator.  Tom Parking is a veteran NDP strategist, columnist and a frequent commentator on national issues. 












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