Nine days after the by-elections held in four ridings–two in Manitoba, one in Ontario, and one in Quebec, respectively, it is clear that the Liberal Party emerged the winner both on Election Day and into the foreseeable future.
The Conservative Party talking point machinery and sympathetic pundits have attempted to spin the by-elections as a victory, but their argument is flimsy at best. As National Post’s Andrew Coyne summarized, Conservative MPs like Mark Adler from York Centre “were obliged first to pretend that a Forum Research poll showing the Liberals ahead by 29 points the weekend before the election had some basis in reality, the better to conjure up a fantasy ‘comeback.’” In reality, the Conservatives won the perceived ‘safe’ Brandon-Souris riding by only 391 votes–a razor-thin margin by Canadian electoral standards. The Liberals’ Rolf Dinsdale, the son of the late George Dinsdale, Brandon’s one-time Mayor and longtime Progressive Conservative MLA, nearly beat Conservative candidate Larry Maguire after the Liberal Party finished fourth in the riding in 2011, with a measly 5.36% of the vote.
This dramatic shift in vote share did not take place merely because of Mr. Dinsdale’s last name. Something else is happening to make these voters shift to the Liberal Party.
Similarly, the Conservatives held onto their stronghold Provencher, the former riding of Vic Toews, by a healthy margin. But Liberal Terry Hayward increased his part of the vote-share from 6.71% to 30%–something that must be very disturbing to Conservative partisans. Across all four by-elections, the Conservatives lost 11 points of the vote share, from 39% to 29%, in a trend that must be disturbing to Conservative Members of Parliament. The NDP, the Official Opposition, similarly lost 5 percentage points of the vote-share, while the Liberal Party gained 18 points. In every riding, if the Liberals did not win, they blew by the NDP to take second place in the election results.
If the by-election results reveal anything, they suggests that Canadians are growing weary of a near-decade of Conservative government, hindered recently by multiple ethical scandals, and are similarly disinterested by an extremely effective Question Period prosecutor in Tom Mulcair. Meanwhile Justin Trudeau’s positive brand of politics is drawing Conservative and NDP voters alike into its winning coalition–one that has been bleeding support since well before Paul Martin became Prime Minister in 2004.
Which brings us to the media coverage and dissemination of the by-election results, and what they mean leading up to the 2015 election. Some have said that Trudeau is no longer just leader of the third party, but now ‘Prime Minister in waiting.’ On the first of December, Trudeau was asked on CTV’s Sunday show Question Period why he did not ca for Stephen Harper’s resignation in light of the Senate Expense scandal and the seeming cover-up perpetrated by his inner circle. Trudeau responded that he would prefer to see the Prime Minister clarify his account of what he knew about the Senate expenses scandal, and when, as opposed to calling for his resignation. But why? Why not go for the easy ‘political right hook?’
I think Mr. Trudeau is not anointing himself ‘PM in waiting’ or calling for Stephen Harper’s resignation because it is not in his or the Liberal Party’s interest to see either of these things come true before 2015, and I believe until after the 2015 election.
My money is on Trudeau and his team playing the strategic long-game in his ascension up the Canadian political ladder. It is in his interest to hone his abilities in Question Period, and promote the Liberal alternative to Stephen Harper frequently across the country. Most importantly, for Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party to be viewed by Canadians as a potential government in waiting, Mr. Trudeau needs to be surrounded by a team of strong potential Cabinet Ministers. That will require significant electoral gains for the Grits in the 2015 election–something that seems likely to happen given the improving Liberal fortunes since Trudeau became Liberal leader.
Leading up to 2015, Trudeau’s Liberals will be focused on capitalizing on the popularity of the leader’s approach to politics to dramatically increase the Liberal seat count in the House of Commons, but Trudeau’s goal is not to win government. I believe that Trudeau and his team are quietly hopeful that Stephen Harper will lead the Conservative Party to a minority government, further eroding his credibility as an effective Prime Minister and leader of a unified Conservative caucus.
If Prime Minister Harper steps down as PM or loses a snap election from a confidence vote shortly after the 2015 election, it plays right into the rejuvenated Liberal Party’s hands. Stocked with a strong shadow cabinet after 2015, and a confident and charismatic leader in Justin Trudeau, the Liberal Party would be in a much stronger position to be presented as ‘government-in-waiting’.
In this scenario, the Conservative Party will face a leadership selection process laden with strong candidates, who vary from social conservatives to relative moderates. Which direction the base ultimately chooses to go from an ideological perspective would undoubtedly cause tension within the party, which has never experienced an existence without Stephen Harper as it’s leader.
The NDP will seek to do one of two things. Dippers will either attempt to continue the to frame their party as the NDP of the late Jack Layton, and if they do, they will lose. With the utmost respect to the memory of Mr. Layton (who stoked my interest in politics), Thomas Mulcair is not the same kind of leader as Layton, and no amount of rhetorical gymnastics will change that. Mulcair plays the role of intense, thoughtful prosecutor well, and the NDP will need to figure out how to capitalize on these traits, but a sunny individual Mr. Mulcair is not.
This prediction could end up terribly wrong, but given the effect Trudeau has had on the Canadian political scene since he became leader of the Liberal Party, and the ongoing scandals surrounding the Conservative government, the conditions are ripe for Mr. Trudeau and his Liberals to firmly establish a solid shadow cabinet before making a bid for the ‘top job.’
Feel free to cook me a crow to eat in 2015 if I’m wrong!