Byelections can have surprising results, what will happen this time?

Author: Geoffrey Stevens

Published August 20, 2012, in Waterloo Region Record.

It’s been nearly two weeks since Dalton McGuinty called provincial byelections for Kitchener-Waterloo and for Vaughan. At this stage, no one, frankly, can predict what is going to happen. Continue reading

That’s par for the course. We are in the dog days of summer and voters are more interested in their cottages and their barbecues, and in getting the kids ready to return to school, than they are in whether McGuinty’s Liberals regain their majority on Sept. 6 — or in such local issues as whether the widening of Highway 7 between Kitchener and Guelph, already 31 years in the planning, will ever happen.

Drowsy, inattentive voters always make summer campaigns hard to call, even for experienced pollsters. The sheer unpredictability of voters in byelections simply magnifies the problem. Voters can do almost anything in a byelection. Historical voting patterns may count for nothing. Byelection voters find themselves liberated. They can throw off their shackles and vote any way they darned well please.

Sometimes the result can be startling. Flash back to October 1978, to Newfoundland. Pierre Trudeau was in power, and his Liberals regarded Newfoundland as their fief, except for those occasions when the Tories borrowed a few seats. Newfoundlanders had never sent a New Democrat (or CCFer) to Ottawa. Suddenly, out of nowhere, in a federal byelection that October, an NDP candidate with the improbable name of Alphonsus E. Faour (known as “Fonse” to his friends) captured the riding of Humber-Port au Port-St. Barbe. Even New Democrats were dumbfounded.

(Fonse Faour was an MP for 490 days before losing the seat to a Liberal in the 1980 federal election. He went on to serve briefly as the provincial NDP leader and today sits as a trial division judge on the Newfoundland Supreme Court.)

In Ontario, back in 1969, a provincial byelection produced an equally unexpected result. The riding was Middlesex South, on the edge of London, which was the political fortress of the Conservative premier of the day, John Robarts. In the case of Middlesex South, the byelection served as a surrogate for a major political battle. Premier Robarts had held Ontario out of medicare when the national health insurance plan came into force in the country in 1968. Robarts denounced medicare as a “Machiavellian plot.” (What he meant was never entirely clear, but his opposition to medicare was shared, if not inspired, by the insurance industry in London.)

The NDP was determined to take the medicare fight to Robarts, on his home turf. They blanketed Middlesex South, sending high-profile canvassers from Toronto and beyond to knock on farm doors. Their unknown candidate, Kenneth Bolton, an Anglican archdeacon, won. The Conservatives got the message, and Ontario joined medicare. (Ken Bolton lost the seat at the first available opportunity, as Middlesex South returned to the Tory fold in the 1971 provincial election. Meanwhile, Robarts retired and Bill Davis became premier.)

Closer to home, there was a federal byelection in the riding of Waterloo South (now Cambridge) in 1964. The Conservatives owned the seat or thought they did. In the 1964 byelection, however, they were upset by New Democrat Max Saltsman, a local dry cleaner, who went on to get re-elected four times and proved to be a popular and effective member for 15 years in the House of Commons. The NDP hasn’t done much in the region since Saltsman’s day.

Over the years, byelections have produced some notable results. By my count no fewer than five future or former prime ministers have used the byelection route: Lester Pearson, Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien, Joe Clark (in 2000, on his second time around as Tory leader) and Stephen Harper (in his Canadian Alliance days).

Then there’s Thomas Mulcair (2007 byelection), Bob Rae (both federally and provincially), Stéphane Dion, Tommy Douglas (twice), Robert Stanfield, Paul Hellyer, John Crosbie, David Crombie and Sheila Copps. At Queen’s Park, byelections have produced Christine Elliott, John Tory and Andrea Horwath, among others.

What will Sept. 6 produce?