Did byelection results send PM a message?

Published July 7, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Federal byelections can be quite dramatic, harbingers of political upheaval to come. We saw that back in 1978 when the tired Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau, backed into a constitutional corner, was forced to call no fewer than 15 byelections, all held on Oct. 16 that year. The Liberals’ worst fears were realized as they took a beating everywhere, winning just two of the byelections, both in Quebec. Seven months later, the Grits were out of office and the Tories, under Joe Clark, were in (briefly).

In March 1989, Deborah Grey won a byelection in the Alberta riding of Beaver River. Her victory, by a wide margin over a Progressive Conservative, signalled the arrival of the Reform party and the beginning of the disintegration of the Tory base on the Prairies. Seventeen months later, in August 1990, a Quebec union organizer, Gilles Duceppe, captured Laurier-Sainte Marie in a byelection. He ran as an independent because he did not yet have a party to belong. But that party, the Bloc Québécois, was soon created by defectors from the Liberals and Tories; in 1997, it became the official opposition in Ottawa.
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There were four federal byelections last week, two in Ontario and two in Alberta. They did not offer the drama of the contests mentioned above. The Conservatives retained their two Alberta seats and the Liberals held theirs in Scarborough-Agincourt. The only change came in the inner city Toronto riding of Trinity-Spadina, Olivia Chow’s old seat. It has been an NDP-Liberal swing seat, and this time it swung back to the Liberals, with city councillor Adam Vaughan as their high-profile candidate.

But more happened last week than met the casual eye. The exceptionally low turnout masked some revealing movement. The Liberals gained strength everywhere while the Conservatives lost vote share, even in the two Alberta seats that they won. The Liberals took an aggregate average of 21 per cent of the vote in the four ridings in the 2011 general election. In last week’s byelections, they averaged 41 per cent. The Tories, meanwhile, collected an average of 38 per cent in the byelections, down from 50 per cent in 2011.

The NDP’s share dropped from 24 per cent to 15, while the Green party held steady at 4 per cent.

It would be foolish to read too much significance into the byelections. The results, however, do reflect the same trends as the national polls. The Liberals retain the momentum that has kept them in first place in the polls since Justin Trudeau became leader 14 months ago. Conservative support is stagnant, at best. Some cracks are appearing in their base, even Fortress Alberta.

Their negative attacks on Trudeau’s maturity and ability have done the Tories no good and may have hurt their cause.

For the New Democrats, the 103 seats and official opposition status they won under the late Jack Layton, is as good as it will probably get. Despite the stellar parliamentary leadership of Thomas Mulcair, they seem destined to slip back to their accustomed third place, as the 60-odd per cent of Canadians who reject Stephen Harper’s Conservatives mostly choose the Liberals over the New Democrats as their default government. For Elizabeth May and her Greens, the numbers suggest more of the same — a fringe party clinging to one or two seats in Parliament.

There is nothing at this stage to indicate that any party has enough support, or momentum, to elect a majority government. Anything can happen between now and October 2015 when the next election is scheduled, but as matters stand, a minority government is a real possibility.

For Justin Trudeau, a minority Liberal government would be a huge breakthrough and a personal vindication. A minority Conservative government would be, for Trudeau, a smaller breakthrough, but a victory nonetheless — and an opportunity to continue to build. For Harper, reduction to a minority would signal the end of the road after nine years as prime minister.

Tories focus their attention on leadership speculation

Published Dec. 9, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record.

Is Stephen Harper preparing to vacate the political stage?

On the face of it, the suggestion is absurd. Harper is currently where he has wanted to be his entire political career — very much in personal control of a majority Conservative government. He had to battle to get to that summit, falling short three times before finally making it in 2011.

Why would he give it up, just past the halfway mark of his four-year mandate? That’s a good question. Yet rumours swirl inside the closed world of Ottawa politics.

(When I think of Ottawa, as I do from time to time, I think of it as a terrarium — a self-sustaining environment that exists under a sealed glass dome. Politicians come and go; political parties rise and fall; issues appear and disappear; and gossip graduates to rumour, then to prediction, only to vanish overnight. And all of this happens in splendid isolation from the world where Canadians live, work and vote.)

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The terrarium has been a busy place of late. John Ivison, the Ottawa-based columnist for the National Post, made the rounds of the pre-Christmas parties on the Hill, always a fertile breeding ground for loose talk and speculation. A shrewd observer, he was struck by how few Conservatives on the party circuit were talking about the Senate scandal, the dominant issue of the fall term. Instead, they were talking about the prime minister and the future of their party.

“One person,” Ivison reported, “said that Stephen Harper’s first trip to Israel was originally scheduled for March and was brought forward (to January). Big decisions are being put off, the Conservative said, and there is open speculation that Mr. Harper will return from the Middle East in triumph and announce he plans to resign as Prime Minister before Parliament returns for the spring session.”

Other pundits beg to differ, marginally. They predict the prime minister will stay on until late 2014, then announce his departure in time for a leadership convention in the spring of 2015. In this scenario, the new leader would ride the momentum of the convention to victory in the general election scheduled for October 2015.

What are the reasons for Harper’s departure? There are the self-inflicted wounds from the botched Senate scandal coverup, which has seriously compromised the prime minister’s credibility, and more bad news is likely to come. There is the apparent rebirth of the Liberal party under Justin Trudeau as swing voters who went with the NDP in 2011 move back to the Liberals in the belief that the Grits have the better chance to bring down the fatigued Tories. There are the polls, which suggest the Trudeau phenomenon is not abating. A new Ipsos Reid poll puts the Liberals six points up on the Conservatives (35 per cent to 29); other polls have a larger Liberal lead.

There is a sense among Tories that the best they can hope for under Harper is a return to minority government — not an appealing prospect for a party that has enjoyed the power and privilege of a majority.

Finally, inside the terrarium, unrest is increasing within the government caucus and cabinet. These are people who have followed Harper not out of love, but out of respect and perhaps fear.

Now they are starting to think about life, and their careers, after Harper.

They are starting to talk about leadership succession. They are talking about Jason Kenney, the minister of employment and social development, who has been strikingly successful in his efforts to sweep minority groups into the Conservative tent. But there are three strikes against Kenney. He is from Calgary, like Harper, and two Albertans in a row seem one too many. He wears his social conservatism too prominently on his sleeve. And his opposition to abortion would not win over women voters.

What the Conservatives want is someone who is wedded to the right, but when required can talk like a progressive. Someone like, say, Stephen Harper.