Byelections could portend big changes

Warren Kinsella

By Warren Kinsella, Special to QMI Agency

Pat Perkins attempted to succeed the late Jim Flaherty as the Conservative candidate for Whitby-Oshawa. (Reuters file photo)

Pat Perkins attempted to succeed the late Jim Flaherty as the Conservative candidate for Whitby-Oshawa. (Reuters file photo)

Everyone knows that (a) election outcomes are notoriously difficult to predict these days and (b) byelection outcomes don’t mean much, if anything.

However, those caveats aside, let’s have some fun and (a) recklessly predict some election outcomes and (b) rashly suggest that Monday’s Whitby-Oshawa byelection – and the one in Yellowhead – portend big, big changes.

The one in Whitby-Oshawa, for starters. Whoever actually won the thing – and, at press time, that crucial bit of information remained stubbornly elusive – one thing is for certain: the Conservatives and the New Democrats lost it.

Whitby-Oshawa, you see, was the riding held for many years by former Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. Provincially, the riding is held by Flaherty’s widow, Christine Elliott.

Flaherty died suddenly in April. At the time, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said it was a “terrible shock,” and it was. At the time, nobody could conceive, seven months hence, that the Conservatives would be contemplating actually losing the Flaherty stronghold.

But, at press time Monday night, they were. For Conservatives, Whitby-Oshawa had become a nightmare.

Consider the numbers. In 2006, Flaherty beat the much-liked Liberal incumbent handily, 44% to 39%. In 2008, Flaherty improved his standing, pulling in double the vote of the Liberal challenger – 50% to 25%. And, in 2011, he did even better – stealing 58% of the popular vote in the riding, while his nearest challenger cobbled together only 22%.

Oh, and his nearest challenger wasn’t a Liberal. It was a New Democrat. The Liberals finished third that year, capturing only 14% of the votes. Ouch.

What a difference three years and a new leader make! On the eve of the byelection, public opinion surveys were showing a double-digit plummet in the Harper Conservatives’ popularity in Ontario. One poll, conducted six days before the byelection, actually placed the Liberal and Conservative candidates in Whitby-Oshawa in a dead heat – and the New Democrat, who came second in 2011, in a distant third place.

The fact that this could be happening in Jim Flaherty’s redoubt was extraordinary. The fact that the Conservative candidate had been Whitby’s two-term mayor – and the fact that the Liberal challenger was a newcomer to politics – made it more so.

Whatever happened Monday night, then, the Liberals won Whitby-Oshawa. Despite the Flaherty family’s hold on the riding – and despite the relative experience of the candidates – the Conservatives and the New Democrats have some soul-searching to do.

Out in Yellowhead, Alberta, the results aren’t likely to be as dramatic. But for the Conservatives and the New Democrats, there is more evidence that the Trudeau phenomenon has national implications.

Yellowhead, a vast riding located west of Edmonton, has been conservative – or Conservative – since it was created in 1979. Joe Clark, the Progressive Conservative leader, held it without interruption from 1979 to 1993. Cliff Breitkreuz then represented the area for three successive elections, as a Reform or Alliance candidate. Since 2000, Rob Merrifield has made Yellowhead his kingdom – pulling in an astonishing 77% of the vote in 2011. The Liberals were reduced to 2%, and a distant fourth place, behind the New Democrats and Greens.

This time around, as in Ontario, Team Harper has experienced a double-digit plummet in popularity in their Alberta heartland. In Yellowhead, some small-sample polling has seen Merrifield’s Tory successor slide significantly – and the Grit challenger add more than 23 points to the party’s 2011 showing. The NDP, meanwhile, was far back in the pack, in third place.

Make no mistake, for the Liberals to do so well in Yellowhead – and for the Conservatives and the New Democrats to do so poorly in Jim Flaherty’s Whitby-Oshawa – is simply amazing.

The seat standings may not have changed last night.

But Canadian politics did.


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