Canadian by-elections 2013

Four federal by-elections were held in Canada on November 25, 2013 in the ridings of Bourassa (Quebec), Brandon—Souris (Manitoba), Provencher (Manitoba) and Toronto Centre (Ontario). These seats, two of which were held by the Liberal Party and the other two by the governing Conservative Party, had fallen vacant over the summer.

Context

Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s majority government is in its third year – and the Conservatives have been in power for seven years now, first winning a minority mandate in January 2006. Three years in, the Tories are struggling in the polls and facing a rejuvenated and re-energized opposition, both from the official opposition New Democrats (NDP) and the third-placed Liberals.

Harper’s remarkable ability to survive two minority governments and win a third term as a majority government has been due, in part, to his ‘teflon’ qualities – almost all of what was thrown at him by the opposition, the media, the economy or what have you have largely failed to stick. For example, Harper’s second minority government was brought down in March 2011 by a motion which found his government to be in contempt of Parliament, becoming the first Canadian and Commonwealth government to be found in contempt of Parliament. And yet, despite all that, Harper led the Conservatives to a huge victory on May 2, 2011 – winning a majority government, and relegating the Liberals – Canada’s so-called ‘natural governing party’ – into third place behind the centre-left NDP.

The other part in the Harper winning equation has been his political and strategic acuity, which allowed him to outmaneuver the hapless Liberals on countless occasions since defeating Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin in 2006. The complacent and arrogant Liberals seriously underestimated their opponent’s political acumen and his sharp strategical mind, and it led them into the ditch. Harper has centralized power and decision-making in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), keeping a tight leash on Conservative ministers and MPs and ensuring that the government is kept ‘on message’ at all times. The extremely strict party discipline and deference to authority which characterizes Canadian governance and parliamentary politics predates Harper, but Harper has brought it to new heights. The Conservatives successfully targeted key demographics which had been reliably Liberal in the 1990s – visible minorities, upwardly mobile new Canadians and middle-classes and well-off middle-class suburbanites.

Now, it appears that Harper’s teflon qualities are beginning to wear off. This has been most evident in the Senate scandal which has rocked Canadian politics throughout 2013.

Members of the Canadian Senate, a relatively weak upper house, are appointed by the Prime Minister (officially, by the Governor General on his ‘advice’) and may serve until they reach the age of 75. The unelected nature of the Senate, the unequal representation of provinces (based neither on the equal representation of all constituent units or rep-by-pop) and its perceived uselessness has led to numerous calls for reform. Stephen Harper and the modern Tories were strongly influenced by the strong demands for Senate reform in Western Canada, commonly expressed as ‘Triple E’ (elected, equal, effective). Upon taking office, Harper set out to reform the Senate, tabling legislation to limit Senators to eight-year terms and allowing for the direct election of Senators in each province (Alberta already holds non-binding ‘Senate nominee’ elections, but the Prime Minister is under no obligation to appoint the winner(s), although Harper has done so). However, both bills and other attempts at reform died. Seeing the difficulty of short-term Senate reform, Harper, who had let sixteen vacancies go unfilled since taking office, appointed sixteen new Senators in January 2009. Overall, Harper has appointed no less than 59 senators – all Conservatives – since 2009. Critics have accused Harper, a longstanding supporter of Senate reform, of hypocrisy.

Beginning in late 2012, four senators – three Conservatives appointed by Harper and one Liberal – were investigated for expense claims (housing and travel) for which they were not eligible. Conservative Senators Mike Duffy (PEI) and Pamela Wallin (Saskatchewan) both claimed primary residences in the province they represented, allowing them to claim living expenses while they work in Ottawa, while both still had Ontario health cards. Wallin claimed a total of C$369,593 in expenses in 2011-2012, including C$163,216 in ‘other travel’. Duffy claimed a total of C$298,310 in the same period. A third Tory senator, Patrick Brazeau, also faced questions over his expenses but what attracted the focus on him was his arrest in February for domestic and sexual assault and is awaiting trial.

In May 2013, it was revealed that Harper’s chief of staff, chief of staff, Nigel Wright, had written Duffy a personal cheque for C$90,172 to cover his fraudulent expense claims. Wright was forced to resign his position, and Harper tried to distance himself from his former chief of staff and the three embattled Tory senators he had appointed. Harper denied that he or anyone in the PMO had knowledge of Wright’s cheque, but subsequent revelations that senior members of the PMO were in on the details cast serious doubts on Harper’s honesty. Senators Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau were removed from the Conservative caucus and sat as independents.

As Parliament reconvened and the Tories continued to struggle under the weight of the Senate kerfuffle, Harper was determined to suspend the three senators in a bid to put the affair behind him. However, the three senators, who have been accused but not charged, mounted a spirited defense in which they were joined by some Liberal and Conservative colleagues, who protested the government “driving roughshod over due process and the presumption of innocence” (to quote Tory Senator Hugh Segal). Finally, the Senate did vote to suspend Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau without pay until the end of the session on November 5.

Harper is a shrewd political strategist who has been able to weather many storms in the past. He more or less maneuvered his way out of the 2008-2009 coalition crisis, two prorogations in controversial circumstances, criticism of major cost overruns in the acquisition of F-35 fighter planes, a scandal involving illegal Tory robocalls during the last federal election, harsh domestic and international criticism of Canada’s environmental and natural resources policies and ethics scandals involving cabinet ministers. However, Harper’s handling of the Senate scandal was not nearly as successful. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair led strong offensives against the government on the scandal during Question Periods in the House of Commons. During the Senate suspension debate, Duffy used the opportunity to throw more mud at the government – his lawyers claimed the PMO had pushed him into accepting the cheque or that the Conservative Party had paid all of his legal fees relating to the scandal. According to documents released by RCMP investigators, Wright may be charged for bribery, fraud and breach of trust and that Harper might have known more than he admits (an email from Wright said that the PM knew ‘in broad terms’ of the transaction). The RCMP report also claimed that the PMO had arranged to alter a Senate subcommittee report critical of Duffy.

Harper has tried to get a reboot after a tough start to 2013 by announcing a major cabinet shuffle in July, and a new Throne Speech to open a new session of Parliament in October. His shuffle, unsurprisingly, drew relatively little interest outside political circles given that most of the key portfolios – finance, foreign affairs, natural resources and the President of the Treasury Board – didn’t change hands and some of the more important changes (at justice, national defence, citizenship and immigration) were not really indicative of major changes. Some up-and-coming Conservative MPs, such as Chris Alexander (Citizenship and Immigration), Shelly Glover (Canadian Heritage), Kellie Leitch (Labour), entered cabinet with some significant portfolios.

The Throne Speech in October reiterated the Conservative government’s traditional agenda of small government, low taxes, balanced budgets, private sector job creation, expanding free trade and tough stances on crime. However, an early sign that the Conservatives are looking ahead to the 2015 election, the speech included several popular measures and ‘goodies’ targeting consumers – reducing roaming costs on networks within Canada or requiring television channels to be unbundled.

The Tories are also moving forward on Senate reform, asking the Supreme Court whether it can act alone and/or how much provincial consultation would be needed to (a) set term limits, (b) consultative elections on the appointment of Senators and (c) abolishing the Senate. The Tories’ preferred options remains term limits and elections, while the NDP is vocal about its wish to see the Senate abolished. However, in the Throne Speech, the government stated that “The Senate must be reformed or, as with its provincial counterparts, vanish” and at least one Tory junior minister (Maxime Bernier) has floated the idea of a referendum on Senate reform. The federal government, backed by Alberta and Saskatchewan, argue that the Senate can be abolished using the traditional 7/50 amending formula (consent of Parliament and two-thirds of provinces representing 50% of the population) although all other provinces and a lot of legal experts say that abolition of the Senate would require unanimous consent of all provinces. Most think that the Supreme Court will rule that abolition requires unanimous consent (meaning that it would be impossible in reality) and that consultative elections would require the 7/50 rule; Harper is unwilling to open the Pandora’s box of constitutional politics, meaning that he will need to choose between Senate reform through constitutional negotiations or letting the issue slide, perhaps to use it to run against the provinces and the courts in 2015.

Meanwhile, the Tories are facing stronger opposition. In April 2013, Liberal members and ‘supporters’ (non-paying sympathizers who could vote in the leadership contest) elected Justin Trudeau, the son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (1968-1979, 1980-1984), as Liberal leader, replacing Ontario MP Bob Rae, who had been serving as interim leader since the Grits were obliterated into third place in May 2011. Justin Trudeau, elected in a marginal Montreal-area riding in 2008 and reelected in 2011 despite the NDP’s Orange Crush landslide in Quebec that year, is young (41), photogenic, quite charismatic, at ease in the media and has a famous name. Trudeau had originally declined to run (when Rae was widely anticipated to run for the permanent leadership) but, as Rae did not run, Trudeau reconsidered and threw his hat into the race. Trudeau, by far the strongest and most well-known of the contenders, won handily with 80% of the ‘points’ and 78.8% of the votes.

Since then, the Liberals have led the Tories and NDP in almost all polls. The size of the Liberal lead has varied, peaking after his election in April and dropping somewhat afterwards. Unlike what many had predicted, Trudeau’s honeymoon has prolonged itself – the Liberal lead grew in September and October, while the Tories have foundered – falling below the traditional Tory ‘floor’ of 30%.

Trudeau’s appeal is largely built on his personality and message.

Canadians, outside of the 40% of Tory supporters or floating sympathizers, have never really warmed to Harper (whose approval ratings have always been mediocre) although many respect him as a ‘strong leader’ and view him as most capable on economic issues (the government’s self-proclaimed priority). The Canadian economy is doing relatively well (with natural resource-rich provinces such as Saskatchewan or Alberta leading the way), although growth is projected to slow to 1.5% in 2013 as a result of public spending cuts, restrained foreign demand, the persistent strength of the Canadian dollar, ongoing competitiveness challenges and government policies to curb and reverse record high levels of household debt. Economic recovery in the US and high commodity prices should continue to help the economy. The economy remains one of Harper’s main strengths going into an election campaign, although he is not unassailable on the issue. After seven years in power (and nine by 2015), the mishandled Senate debacle and other scandals/issues, voter fatigue is definitely settling in.

There are also signs that Harper is facing push-back from Tory backbenchers for his ultra-centralist, hegemonic, PMO rule style of governance. Again, while both the Liberals and NDP have whipped caucuses in which backbenchers are told to tow the party line or else, the Tory government has taken it to another level. Government news releases are now signed as ‘the Harper Government’ rather than ‘the Government of Canada’, the PMO and the Privy Council Office vet their content, ministers are tightly controlled and backbenchers generally irrelevant and forgettable cogs. In October 2012, a Tory backbencher introduced a private members’ motion to form a committee to review the meaning of life (reopening the abortion debate), despite Harper’s objection to having the touchy issue reopened (Harper wants to keep a tight lid on social conservative issues like these, to kill the old ‘Tory secret agenda’ ideas). It was voted down 203 to 91, but 86 Tory MPs – including 10 members of cabinet – voted in favour. Just this month, Michael Chong, a Conservative backbencher, introduced a much-discussed ‘reform bill’ which would formalize a caucus’ ability to call for a leadership review and remove leaders’ power to deny nomination to candidates by not signing their nomination papers.

Similarly, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, who won the NDP leadership in March 2012 following the death of iconic NDP leader Jack Layton in August 2011, has seen his star fade and popularity decline. He is a capable politician and a strong performer in the House, but the Mulcair NDP has been somewhat stale and unappealing. Mulcair has been working hard to finally shake off the NDP’s image as a leftist third party, by transforming the NDP into a moderate, pragmatic and vaguely centre-left party – a transformation which actually began with Layton (whose 2011 platform was more Tony Blair than anything socialist). For example, while Mulcair supports a cap-and-trade system and drew flack for his comments on Canada facing a ‘Dutch disease’ because of the Albertan oil sands industry, he opposes any changes to personal income tax levels (so no ‘wealth tax’) and only proposes raising corporate tax levels to pre-Harper levels (22%) and cutting business subsidies (notably to the oil and gas sector).

In this context, Trudeau – who presents a fresh face and a vague but appealing message (‘hope and change’, ‘hard work’, ‘middle-classes’) – is seen as a refreshing alternative. Even his admission that he smoked pot, even after becoming an MP, failed to make a lasting mark on the Liberals. Despite Mulcair’s stronger performances in QP, Trudeau’s Grits are still seen as the anti-Harper Trudeau’s main Achilles heel, however, is that his appeal remains quite fragile. He has been criticized countless times for being an empty suit who lacks coherent policies behind pablum like ‘real priorities’. In fact, his policies appear a rather vague mix-mash of things designed to please both the left (legalizing marijuana, opposition to Northern Gateway pipeline, musings about a carbon tax) and the right (support for the Keystone XL pipeline, pro-free trade) all couched in vague language about helping the middle-classes. To add to this, Trudeau still has a knack for rookie gaffes which may come back to haunt him. Most recently, in early November, Trudeau said he ‘admired’ China’s administration because of their environmental policies (while Trudeau was not explicit and may have phrased it awkwardly, it was widely read as ‘Trudeau admires authoritarian China’). He said this at an event for ‘ladies’ whose promotional poster was widely ridiculed because it looked like some Justin Bieber meet-and-greet event and invited ‘ladies’ to “really get to know the future PM” and asked “who are your real life heroes?” or “what is your favourite virtue?” (seriously).

Bourassa, QC

Map of Bourassa (source: Elections Canada)

Bourassa is located in northeastern Montreal, including the entirety of the borough of Montréal-Nord and parts of the boroughs of Ahuntsic (Sault-au-Recollet) and Rivière-des-Prairies-Pointe-aux-Trembles (part of Rivière-des-Prairies).

The seat became vacant in June following the resignation of Liberal MP Denis Coderre to run for mayor of Montreal in last month’s municipal elections (he won). Coderre, a prominent Quebec Liberal MP, had represented the riding since 1997 and served in cabinets under Prime Ministers Chrétien and Martin.

Bourassa is a lower-income multicultural suburban riding. In 2011, 40.2% of the population were visible minorities, and the largest visible minority groups were blacks (21% of the population), Arab (8.9%) and Latin American (6.1%) populations. Bourassa has a large Haitian population – 17.5% claimed Haitian ancestry (the highest in the country), 11% were born in Haiti (29.8% of immigrants were Haitian-born) and 8.6% said Creole was their mother tongue. This demographic makeup explains why Bourassa is still predominantly Francophone (51.4% as a mother tongue, 58.9% speak French most often at home) and largely Catholic (61.8%).

On the note of religion, Quebec is very much a secular province and religious practice is very low. But there’s still a strong secular Christian/Catholic tradition lingering in most of the province, meaning that the percentage of those who pick ‘no religious affiliation’ is very low (except in the more bobo parts of Montreal) compared to Anglo parts of Canada (except perhaps the Atlantic), so only 8.2% of Bourassa’s residents claimed no religious affiliation on the NHS in 2011.

Nevertheless, this should not obscure the fact that Bourassa also has, by Canadian standards, large Arab and Latin American populations as well as a significant Italian community. Most Arabs come from North Africa or Lebanon, countries with a significant Francophone influence. Muslims, at 12.7%, form the second largest religious group after Catholics and 7.3% claimed Arab as their mother tongue. Most Latin Americans are of Peruvian, Salvadoran or Mexican origin and Spanish was the mother tongue of 6.7% of the riding’s population. Finally, Bourassa has a large Italian population, albeit smaller than in neighboring Saint-Léonard or Rivière-des-Prairies, the Italian heartlands of Montreal. Still, 14.3% claimed Italian ancestry and around 9% said Italian was their mother tongue. The Italian population is spread out throughout most of the riding, but largest in the small part of Rivière-des-Prairies included in the riding.

The riding is largely poor – in 2006, it ranked as one of the poorest ridings in all of Canada and it was undoubtedly the same in 2011. The 2010 median household income was $36,981 and 30.4% of all persons were considered low income after tax. Another indicator of the riding’s deprivation is that only 60% of income came from employment earnings while 26.8% came from government transfers.

Low income is also reflected in education, work and housing. 32.2% of the 15+ population had no certificate/diploma/degree of any kind and 24.6% only had a high school diploma – and if 43.2% had post-sec qualifications, most of these were apprenticeship/trades (14.8%) or CEGEP/college diplomas (13.1%), only 10.9% had a university diploma. The leading occupations in 2011 were sales and services (27.8% of the labour force), business/finance/administration (15.4%) and trades/transport (12.9%). The riding’s main industries (NAICS) are retail trade (14.5%), healthcare and social services (13.9%) and manufacturing (13%). In 2011, 69% of households were rented and 60% of them were apartments with fewer than five floors.

Montréal-Nord has a fairly grim reputation in Montreal (as always, certainly undeserved in good part) as a poor, dangerous high-crime neighborhood. It does have something like the third highest crime rate of the island, and crime and violence – gang, drug or prostitution related – is high in parts of the borough, especially in the eastern end close to highway 25. In August 2008, protests following the death of an Honduran teenager at the hands of the police turned into riots (vandalism, cars burned, looting).

The riding of Bourassa was created in 1966 and first contested in 1968, and although the boundaries have shifted eastwards or westwards since then, it has always been centered on Montréal-Nord, an independent municipality until amalgamation. Since 1968, the Liberals lost the riding only twice – to the Progressive Conservatives (PC) in Brian Mulroney’s 1988 Quebec landslide and to the Bloc Québécois (BQ) in the 1993 election. That year, Bloc candidate Osvaldo Nunez, a Chilean immigrant who fled the Pinochet coup in 1973, won the seat by 95 votes (0.12%) over Liberal candidate Denis Coderre, 42% to 41.9%. The PC incumbent, who had won 43.4% in 1988, won 12%. In 1997, a much less favourable year for the Bloc in Quebec, Coderre defeated Nunez in a rematch – and it wasn’t even close: Coderre won the seat by 19.7%, with 52.2% to the Bloc’s 32.5%. Thereafter, he was reelected by comfortable margins – a huge 34% in 2000, more modest margins of 12% (2004), 11% (2006) and 24% (2008) in the subsequent elections. In 2008, Coderre had won 49.8% against 25.4% for the Bloc and 13.6% for the Tories. In 2011, Coderre held his seat with an 8.6% majority over the NDP, with 40.9% against 32.3% for the NDP, 16.1% for the Bloc and 8.8% for the Conservatives.

With redistribution, the new (post-2015) riding will expand westwards to take in the rest of Sault-au-Recollet but lost all Rivière-des-Prairies; this reduces the Liberal majority in 2011 to 6.1%.

Poll-by-poll results of the 2011 federal election in Bourassa (source: election-atlas.ca)

The parties lack well-defined ‘strongholds’ in the riding, although there are some general patterns – broken by the NDP’s Orange Crush in 2011. The Liberals, since the 1990s, have tended to perform best in areas of Montréal-Nord with a large(r) Haitian or Arab population or in Rivière-des-Prairies, and its strong Italian presence. In 2006, for example, the Liberals won over 60% in a series of polls in Rivière-des-Prairies, where the Conservatives also did relatively well – second ahead of the Bloc in a few polls. The Bloc, prior to 2011, did better in polls with a smaller immigrant population. As in the rest of Montreal/Quebec, the 2011 NDP Orange Crush was at its strongest with Francophone ex-BQ voters and the NDP did not do as well with immigrants and minorities, who remained Liberals – although the NDP still won higher numbers with them than the Bloc had in the past. Therefore, the NDP’s support in 2011 bears some similarities to the Bloc’s pre-2011 support, although naturally the correlation isn’t perfect.

The Liberals and the NDP both had contested nomination meetings. The Liberals nominated Emmanuel Dubourg, an Haitian-born who served as provincial Liberal MNA for the provincial riding of Viau (which borders Bourassa, but does not include any parts thereof) between 2007 and his resignation in August 2013. When Dubourg resigned from the National Assembly, he received (legally) a severance pay of $100,000. That sparked some controversy, especially as some felt that he had resigned early before the provincial government passed a law which will abolish severance pays for MNAs resigning for no official reason. Dubourg and the federal Liberals consider the case closed and he has no intention of relinquishing his retirement bonus. The NDP made noise about having a “star candidate” – but as often happens with parties trumpeting a mystery star candidate, it turned out that said star candidate wasn’t a start candidate. The NDP nominated this ‘star candidate’, Stéphane Moraille, an Haitian lawyer and singer in Bran Van 3000, a Juno Award-winning (in 1998) band.

The Bloc nominated Daniel Duranleau, a former school trustee. There was some speculation at the outset about whether the Bloc’s leader, Daniel Paillé, who has no seat in the House, would throw his hat into the ring but unsurprisingly he did not run – as that would have been suicidal. The Conservatives nominated Rida Mahmoud, an engineer from Côte-d’Ivoire.

The Green Party, which is for all intents and purposes dead in Quebec besides managing to run no-namers in elections, was excited by its original candidate, Georges Laraque. Laraque, who is of Haitian ancestry, was a NHL hockey player between 1997 and his retirement in 2010; he finished his NHL career with the Montreal Canadiens. He became deputy leader of the Green Party in 2010, but he didn’t even run in the 2011 federal election and the Greens performed, unsurprisingly, disastrously in Quebec in 2011. Laraque polled up to 12% in October, entirely on the star factor and his ties with the Haitian community which likely won him the backing of a few (probably usually Liberal) Haitian voters. However, he quit as candidate and Green deputy leader on October 17 after it was revealed he was charged on five counts of fraud. His unethical business practices were already public and police had raided his home in January 2013, raising major questions as to why Green leader Elizabeth May thought running Laraque would end up being beneficial for the Greens. It seemed, however, that May was desperately looking for another ‘beach-head’ in her micro-targeting strategy (after the successful results in last year’s Victoria and Calgary by-elections) and was ready to bankrupt her very thinly spread party in the process. When Laraque dropped out, despite May reaffirming her ‘faith in his innocence’, the Greens went with one Danny Polifroni, who ran for the provincial Greens in 2012.

Forum Research polled the riding five times, including four times with the names of the candidates themselves. The Liberals saw their support fall from 56% on November 5 to 43% on November 22, while the NDP’s numbers rose from 18% in October to 31% in the final poll in late November. The Bloc, which got 26% in the May poll, was pegged at 15-17% for the campaign (except one poll on November 14 which had them at 20%). Green support collapsed to 2% after Laraque dropped out.

Turnout was only 26.2%, down from 55.1% in 2011.

Emmanuel Dubourg (Liberal) 48.12% (+7.21%)
Stéphane Moraille (NDP) 31.44% (-0.84%)
Daniel Duranleau (Bloc Québécois) 13.02% (-3.04%)
Rida Mahmoud (Conservative) 4.65% (-4.17%)
Danny Polifroni (Green) 2.01% (+0.4%)
Serge Lavoie (Rhinoceros) 0.76%

Unsurprisingly, the Liberals held the seat with a comfortable majority, with a 16.7% majority, significantly larger than Coderre’s small 8.6% majority over the NDP in May 2011. The seat has a strong and old Liberal tradition, which both predates Coderre and goes beyond a simple personal vote for Coderre. Like Coderre before him, Dubourg had strong roots in the Haitian community, probably far more so than somebody like Moraille who is not a politician. This factor, combined with the continuing popularity of the Trudeau Liberal brand – which has given signs of being even stronger in immigrant-heavy ridings such as this one, where immigrant voters might harbour positive opinions of the Trudeau last name because, in part, of Pierre Trudeau’s multiculturalism policy. Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have led the polls in Quebec since he became leader, but Trudeau is the most polarizing politician in Quebec according to a recent poll, which found his favourables/unfavourables split 44-32 – against 60/10 for Mulcair and 67% unfavourables for Harper.

That being said, the NDP vote held up quite well considering that the NDP’s popularity in Quebec has fallen significantly since the Orange Crush, when the NDP won 43% of the vote in the province. According to 308.com’s latest polling average (November), the NDP’s support stood at 25% in Quebec, trailing the Liberals by 11 points (36%, up from 32% last month). That might be due, in part, to the natural propensity in most by-elections to squeeze minor parties out and coalesce the vote around two parties. After Laraque dropped out, Moraille presented the race as a two-way contest. Political winds change direction very quickly in Quebec (witness the evolution of voting intentions during the 2011 campaign), but for the time being, the NDP, while its support has been eroded as of late with the Liberal upsurge, shouldn’t be counted out.

For one, the Dippers are in a much stronger position than the Bloc, which has failed to recover from the drubbing it received in 2011 because of the Orange Crush (23% of the vote). Because its leader, the rather low-key Daniel Paillé, lacks a seat in the House and the Bloc lacks official party status (4 MPs) it receives low media coverage. Add to that that the PQ provincial government is unpopular, that support for independence is low and that the last time the Bloc got significant media attention was when one of its MPs, Maria Mourani, was expelled from the party from opposing the PQ’s new and controversial Quebec Charter of Values. However, to be fairer, the Bloc likely didn’t put put much of its meager resources into the race.

Similarly, the Conservative vote consistently drops, often rather significantly, in those by-elections in which the Tories have no chance of winning and therefore don’t put any effort into them.

Without Laraque, in a riding which is demographically unfavourable to the Greens to begin with, the Greens did poorly, although they increased their percentage share of the vote by a few decimals.

Turnout was very low, so any conclusions we can draw from this by-election should be taken with a grain of salt. There were 19,675 less valid votes in 2013 than in 2011. All parties, even the Liberals, saw their actual raw vote fall from 2011 – the Liberals lost 6,725, the NDP lost 6,504, the Bloc lost 3,718, the Tories lost 2,502 and the Greens lost 245. More than anything else, in such circumstances, each party likely held their core voters who vote in every election and direct gains/loses from party to party were likely limited.

Brandon—Souris, MB

Map of Brandon-Souris (source: Elections Canada)

Brandon—Souris is located in the southwestern corner of Manitoba, centered around the city of Brandon. The city, the second largest in the province, has a population of about 56,000 (with 64,200 in the wider metro area), making it – by miles – the largest town in the constituency, which is otherwise made up of small towns with only a few thousand inhabitants, Prairie farmland and a few Native reserves.

The seat became vacant with the resignation of Conservative backbench MP Merv Tweed resigned at the end of August. Tweed was first elected in 2004.

Brandon-Souris is a largely white and Protestant riding, but given that 72% of the riding’s population lives in the Brandon metro I would object to the descriptor ‘rural’ for this riding. It is more rural, obviously, than many ridings in Canada – in 2011, 9.6% were employed in agriculture/forestry which places it significantly above the Canadian average in terms of population employed in agriculture. However, the main industries in Brandon-Souris are healthcare (14.3%) and retail trade (11.4%), with agriculture in third followed down the list by public administration (9.4%) and manufacturing (8%). Brandon has a regional health centre, contributing the strong presence of healthcare and social assistance in the riding; it also has a university (Brandon University) meaning that education is also rather big (7.4% in 2011). The leading occupations in 2011 were sales/services (22% of the labour force), trades/transport/equipment operators (15.1%), management (13.8%) and education/law/social, community and government services (13.5%).

The median household income, $57,055, not particularly high, but poverty is rather low – 14.8% were low income after tax in 2011. Low income but comparatively low poverty is common for a ‘rural/small town’ areas. One reason being that houses are fairly cheap, the median value of dwellings in 2011 was $189,875 against $280,552 for the entire country. Seven in ten households are owned (72% to be exact), most of them were built before the 1980s and the huge majority of them are single-detached houses.

Another typical characteristic of ridings such as Brandon-Souris is the relatively low level of education – despite the presence of a (small) university campus. 24% have no certifications and 29.5% only have their high school diploma. 46.6% do have post-secondary qualifications, largely from college (17.9%) or university (13.7%).

6.8% of the population are visible minorities, the leading communities being Latin Americans and Chinese. Another 9.8% claim ‘aboriginal identity’ – including 5.6% of Native Americans and 4.1% Métis. The non-white population is largest in the city of Brandon, where ‘only’ 77% are white.

Of more political relevance is the ethnic/ancestral makeup of the riding. Southwestern Manitoba, where the land was the best, attracted well-off ‘elite’ English settlers from Ontario or the British Isles beginning in the 1870s and 1880s, who gradually came to outnumbers the Natives and Métis. These Ontarian-English farmers and businessmen came to form the political and economic elite of the province, which more or less retained power at the provincial level until the election of Ed Schreyer’s NDP government in 1969. Several Manitoba Premiers, including famous names such as Thomas Greenway, Rodmond Roblin or John Bracken, had immigrated from Ontario. The result of this interesting history is that the Brandon area, in contrast with other parts of the Canadian Prairies which attracted very diverse immigration from Eastern Europe, the Russian Empire or Germany, has a more English/Scottish population. English and Scottish were the two leading ethnic origins declared in 2011, with 35.9% and 29.9% of the population respectively. Germans came in fifth – behind Canadian and Irish – with 16.7% – while a total of 17.5% declaring various Eastern European origins, mostly Ukrainian, Polish or Russian.

English was the mother tongue of 85% of residents in 2011. German was a very far second, with 4.4%, although the proportion of German speakers rises to over 20% in some rural municipalities outside Brandon.

Religiously, the riding is heavily Protestant – in 2011, the various Protestant and non-Catholic Christian denominations accounted for 50.1% of the population, undoubtedly ranking the riding near the top in terms of Protestants. Catholics made up only 16.6% of the population, and 31.4% claimed no religious affiliation (you will notice the irony of a conservative small town riding in Manitoba having a much larger share of irreligious identifiers than a urban riding in Montreal!).

English-Ontarian voters, at the provincial level, historically split their allegiances between the Conservatives, Liberals and Progressives and strongly resisted the NDP. Agrarian socialism carried no appeal to southwestern Manitoba’s prosperous English farmers and agrarian politics in Manitoba were steeped in Ontarian rural liberalism, extremely moderate if compared to the ‘group government’ and proto-socialist ideas of Albertan and Saskatchewan agrarianism. The Brandon-Souris area, provincially and federally, has a strong Conservative tradition. Provincially, the PCs have represented the rural ridings with almost no interruption since at least 1958, but the NDP has usually held Brandon East, the poorer part of the city.

Federally, Brandon-Souris was created in 1952 from the merger of the separate ridings of Brandon and Souris, which more or less represented the north and south halves of the current riding respectively. Since the riding’s creations, the Conservatives lost the seat only once – to the Liberals in the 1993, largely because the right-wing vote was split between Reform and the PCs, allowing the Grits to win with only 33%.

Before the 1950s, the Liberals had represented the area a few times. Clifford Sifton, Wilfrid Laurier’s Minister of the Interior between 1896 and 1905 who is most famous for promoting European immigration to Western Canada at the turn of the last century, held the seat of Brandon between 1896 and 1911. Robert Forke, the moderate and liberal leader of the Progressive Party, represented Brandon between 1921 and 1930, although he was returned as a Liberal-Progressive in 1926 and joined the federal Liberal cabinet that same year.

Brandon-Souris sticks out from other ‘rural’ ridings in Western Canada by never having elected a Reform/Alliance MP. In 1997, it was Brandon mayor Rick Borotsik, a Progressive Conservative, who won the seat with a thin 1.7% margin over the Reform Party. Borotsik, something of a Red Tory and critic of the Reform Party, was reelected in 2000 with a 5.5% majority over the Alliance. In both elections, the Liberals placed a paltry third with only 18% of the vote – Borotsik certainly ate into the Liberal potential a lot.

Borotsik only reluctantly joined the united Conservative Party in 2003 and backed Belinda Stronach over Harper for the leadership of the new party. He did not seek reelection in 2004, allowing Merv Tweed, a provincial PC MLA, to easily win the seat for the Tories with 51.7% against 24.2% for the Liberals and 19.2% for the NDP. Tweed was reelected with huge majorities in the next three elections – 34% in 2006, 39% in 2008 and 2011. The Liberal vote has consistently declined since 2004, from 18% in 2006 to only 5.4% in 2011; while the NDP has become the strongest rival to the Tories with 25% in 2011 (against 63.7% for Tweed). In 2008, the Greens placed a strong third with 15.8% of the vote, probably because their candidate spent $37,583 – much more than either the Grits or the Dippers, and only slightly less than the Tories themselves. In 2011, however, he spent only $10,000 or so and the Green vote fell to 5.7% (still ahead of the Liberals).

With redistribution, the boundaries shift slightly southwards – losing the northern parts of the riding to Dauphin—Swan River—Neepawa – but expanding eastwards a bit. The impact on the 2011 results is negligible.

Poll-by-poll results of the 2011 federal election in Brandon-Souris (source: election-atlas.ca)

Unsurprisingly, the Conservatives have tended to do far better in rural and small town polls than in Brandon itself, although the size of their margin in the last elections has lessened the divide somewhat. Indeed, in 2011, the NDP won only 12 regular polls to the Tories’ 167 – all of them were in Brandon except for the Dakota Native reserves (Sioux Valley Dakota Nation and Canupawakpa Dakota First Nation). The Tories won upwards of 70%, even over 80%, in most rural and small town polls outside the Brandon metro. In areas closer to Brandon, the Tory vote fell under 70% and stood at 40-60% in most of Brandon. In detail, the Conservatives did best in the suburban neighborhoods of Brandon, particularly the newer subdivisions and the more affluent western half of the city. The NDP and the Greens have tended to do best in downtown Brandon, near the university and in the poorer eastern half. In 2011, the NDP’s strongest results came from the downtown core while in 2008, the Greens had won the poll covering the university as well as downtown, with the NDP doing better in some poorer neighborhoods in eastern Brandon.

In 1997, the PCs won Brandon (where Borotsik was mayor), doing particularly well in western Brandon, and some small towns and rural polls while the Reform Party generally won the rural polls.

The Conservative nomination process rose quite a ruckus. Chris Kennedy, a former aide to outgoing MP Merv Tweed, was considered the favourite for the nomination until he was mysteriously disqualified or failed to hand in his nomination papers on time, depending on who you believe. The Conservative Party says that Kennedy’s nomination papers arrived in Ottawa one day after they were due, something confirmed by a tracking of the Purolator package from Brandon to Ottawa, which shows that it left Brandon on the afternoon of Sept. 11 (the day it was due in Ottawa) and arrived in Ottawa the next day. Kennedy, on the other hand, says he delivered the package on Sept. 10 for a next-day delivery to Ottawa (he might be correct, but that would mean that Purolator in Brandon sat on the package for a day) and swears that he had attached the $1,000 deposit cheque to his papers (the Tory HQ had originally told him he had not stapled the cheque to his papers). With Kennedy out and another contender dropping out, the Tories nominated (now former) Arthur-Virden PC MLA Larry Maguire by acclamation. Regardless of what went down, the shenanigans – well publicized by the media and Kennedy’s recriminations – hurt the local Tories, with reports of memberships being returned and a right-wing editorialist in the local newspaper was visibly peeved at the whole issue.

In contrast, the Liberals handled their nomination process far better and attracted a strong candidate. Rolf Dinsdale, a media executive and the son of former PC MP Walter Dinsdale (who held the seat between 1951 and 1982) won the nomination. The NDP nominated Labour Council president Cory Szczepanski, the Greens nominated greenhouse owner David Neufeld and the Libertarians ran Frank Godon, a former US Marine and briefly candidate for the Liberal nomination before dropping out.

Brandon-Souris was the most competitive of the four ridings with by-elections, according to polling by Forum Research – who were in the field five times between October and November. The Liberals led the Tories by 4 points, 40 to 36, in a first poll in October. The Liberal lead grew in each poll thereafter. On November 22, the Liberals led by 14 – 50 to 36 – and on November 24, the last poll out, the Liberals led by a phenomenal 29 points, or 59 to 30. NDP and Green support in the polls was halved over the course of the campaign, from 12% to 6% and 5% respectively.

Turnout was 44.8%, down from 57.5% in 2011.

Larry Maguire (Conservative) 44.16% (-19.57%)
Rolf Dinsdale (Liberal) 42.75% (+37.59%)
Cory Szczepanski (NDP) 7.22% (-17.96%)
David Neufeld (Green) 4.88% (-0.85%)
Frank Godon (Libertarian) 0.98%

In a major surprise – and yet another black eye for Canadian polling – the Tories managed to narrowly hold the seat, with a 1.4% majority over the Liberals. The Grit defeat will disappoint Liberals who had been keeping tabs on this race, and could be interpreted as a Grit ‘underperformance’ given polling expectations. However, Trudeau seems to have done a good job of managing expectations, and the idea that the Grit defeat here was a bad result for them has not been widespread (although I don’t follow the media blabber’s much).

Forum Research, which is not a bad pollster in general (although as a new-ish company, its track record is limited), totally bombed on this one – the Liberals up 29 points (!), in reality they lost by 1. The most likely explanation would probably be the obligatory comment on the difficulty of polling by-elections, which compound the natural difficulty of accurately polling a single riding with about 62,000 registered voters and a usual turnout of 35-36k in normal elections. Related to this is the impact of low turnout; only 27.7k voters turned out in the by-election and it’s no secret that low turnout can create weird results (although this result is not particularly weird, disregarding expectations built on polling) and lead even the best pollsters astray. Speculating further, pollsters might have some trouble accurately polling outside large built-up urban areas, in a riding which, while more urban than actually agricultural/rural, still has a significant share of voters in small towns and rural areas. Finally, some kind of shy Tory/shy government support effect might have played a role; the Tories as incumbents have underpolled in the last two federal elections (but the incumbent Liberals underpolled in 2006) and Forum also underpolled the Tories in Provencher (see later).

The Winnipeg Free Press attributed the Liberal defeat to a series of tactical errors: having a Tory mayor run for the Liberal nomination for the illusion of having a contested nomination (instead of letting him run as an independent), having Trudeau not campaign more heavily outside Brandon and Trudeau opting to spend the final weekend campaigning in the Liberal strongholds in Quebec and Ontario instead of this marginal riding.

Nevertheless, the Liberals’ defeat should not obscure the fact that this was nevertheless an excellent result for them. They won 42.8% of the vote, the highest vote share for the party since its creation (the last time it was this high was in a two-way by-election contest in 1951 in the riding of Brandon) and despite low turnout this is the highest raw vote for the Liberals since 1993, when turnout was 69%.

The Liberal vote was likely inflated some by the two-way nature of this particular by-election, which once again saw the natural propensity for third parties to be squeezed in by-elections. In a general election, I would certainly expect the NDP to do much better – at the very least, 12 or 13% like they won in the 1990s and 2000 (horrible years for the federal NDP). In this by-election with two high profile candidates for the Tories and the Grits, they found themselves squeezed and likely didn’t invest much resources into this riding either. Therefore, the Liberals likely ate into the Dippers’ vote, while other NDP voters from 2011 likely did not turn out. The NDP in Manitoba was also hurt by the provincial NDP government’s unpopularity; the long-time NDP government is trailing in the polls provincially after a decision to raise the sales tax to pay for flood mitigation.

The Conservatives won by 389 votes. The Tories lost over 10,000 votes from the last election, when they had won 22.3k votes – this year, they won only 12.2k votes. The Liberals, on the other hand, increased their raw vote by a significant amount – despite, again, turnout over 10 points lower than in 2011. In the annus horribilis 2011, the Grits won only 1,882 votes in Brandon-Souris whereas this year they took 11,816 – which is, as noted above, the highest raw vote for the Grits since 1993. On the other hand, the NDP lost 6,849 votes; the Greens lost 663 votes and overall 7,521 less votes were cast in 2013. Unlike in Bourassa, where no party gained in raw votes and likely only held its reliable voters from 2011, in Brandon-Souris, the Liberals made sizable gains (+9,934 votes) despite turnout falling by 7.5k. Poll-by-poll results would allow more detailed analysis, but it would appear as if the Liberal gains came from both the NDP and the Tories – which is, needless to say, excellent news for the Grits if they’re able to repeat such gains across Canada. Many Tory and/or Dipper voters must have stayed home as well (possibly more Tories stayed home, as often happens with demotivated and demobilized soft government supporters in by-elections/midterms, further compounded perhaps by the Tory nomination shenanigans).

The Liberal result is even more impressive if you remember how low the Liberals have sunk in Western Canada, outside of a few ‘Indian reserves’ holdouts in Winnipeg, Ralph Goodale’s personal stomping ground (Wascana) and Greater Vancouver. In 2008 and 2011, the Liberals polled single digits in most Western ridings outside urban areas (and even in some urban areas), making the NDP the strongest rivals to the Tories. Under Dion and Ignatieff, the Liberal brand in the west – already damaged by Trudeau and not durably improved by Chrétien/Martin, had become closely associated with eastern ‘elitism’ – Dion as the egghead from Quebec, Ignatieff as the vilified Harvard academic who was “just visiting” and “didn’t come back for you” – but also fairly left-leaning policies which were out of touch with Western Canada: Dion’s green shift (carbon tax) platform in 2008, and even a fairly centre-left platform from Ignatieff despite Ignatieff being closer to the party’s right. Stephen Harper’s Tories, more strongly rooted in Western Canadian conservatism of the Reform/Alliance variety than the PCs ever were (especially post-Diefenbaker), have therefore been an extremely attractive option in the region. While some Western Canadians may feel that Harper hasn’t fulfilled all he said he would or addressed the region’s old grievances fully, it is still clear that under Harper, Western Canada is stronger than it ever was under past Liberal and even PC (Mulroney) governments.

Therefore, if the Liberals are this competitive against the Tories, it is certainly excellent news for the Grits and cause of major concern for the Tories. It does not seem as if Justin Trudeau is, as of today, suffering from his late father’s deep unpopularity in Western Canada. In fact, since Trudeau won the leadership, polling in Saskatchewan and Manitoba (with small samples and large margins of error) have shown the Liberals performing surprisingly well.

Provencher, MB

Map of Provencher (source: Elections Canada)

Provencher is located in southeastern Manitoba. Unlike Brandon—Souris, where over 70% of the population lives in one metro area, only 13.7% of Provencher’s population lives in the largest community in the riding, Steinbach. Geographically, the bulk of the population is concentrated in small communities in the Prairies, while the eastern and northern halves of the riding (extending to the border with Ontario), which are in the barren Canadian Shield, are sparsely populated because the land is unsuitable for agriculture.

The seat became vacant in July 2013 following the retirement of Conservative MP Vic Toews, who had held the seat since 2000. A former provincial cabinet minister under the Manitoba PC government in the 1990s, Toews became the senior Manitoba minister in the Harper government serving as Minister of Justice (2006-2007), President of the Treasury Board (2007-2010) and Minister of Public Safety (2010-2013). Toews gained a reputation as a strong proponent of the government’s law-and-order agenda, spearheading legislative efforts to toughen detention laws for gun crimes and youth offenders and, in his last position, a very controversial bill which would have expanded law enforcement agencies’ power to monitor and track digital communications. The bill, “Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act”, would have allowed authorities to demand access to subscriber information from ISPs and telephone providers without a warrant. There was major public opposition to the bill, and Toews became a lightning rod for criticism after saying people “either stand with us or with the child pornographers” while a Twitter account (run by a Liberal staffer) leaked details of Toews’ divorce details. The legislation was withdrawn in February 2013, and the whole episode badly hurt Toews’ credibility and reputation as cabinet minister. Younger Manitoba MPs such as Shelly Glover (Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages since July 2013) and Candice Bergen (Minister of State (Social Development) since July 2013) have replaced him as the leading Tory MPs from the province in the Harper cabinet.

Provencher is a largely white riding. Visible minorities make up only 2.3% of the population but 12.3% claimed Aboriginal identity, including 9.4% with official Métis identity. The relatively large Métis population – nearly 10,000 people – is a remnant of the riding’s early settlement and history. When Manitoba joined Confederation in 1871, the province’s small population was largely Francophone and Métis. Immigration, first from Ontario or the British Isles, significantly altered the ethnic makeup of the province and had significant consequences for the province’s history. Although the Francophone and Métis presence in Manitoba has been significantly reduced since the nineteenth century, their presence is still perceptible. Provencher has the second highest Francophone population in the province outside of St. Boniface in Winnipeg (the historical centre of the Franco-Manitoban population), with 9.9% speaking French as their mother tongue and 5.4% still speaking French most often at home. French ancestry was the third most commonly reported ethnic origin in 2011, with 19.9%. Canadian, the second largest ethnic origin with 25.6%, may also include persons of French ancestry as the term ‘Canadian’ is heavily used by Francophones in Quebec and some other provinces to describe their ethnic origin.

The French history of the riding is perceptible in the toponyms of towns and villages: Ste. Anne, St-Pierre-Jolys, Saint Malo, Lorette, De Salaberry Rural Municipality or Montcalm Regional Municipality. These areas also have the largest Francophone populations: in St-Pierre-Jolys, French was the mother tongue of 47% of the population in 2011 and over 35% spoke French as their mother tongue in De Salaberry and Montcalm RMs.

Provencher, however, has an even stronger German influence. In the late nineteenth century, German-speaking Mennonites fleeing persecution in Czarist Russia settled in southeastern Manitoba, in the so-called ‘Mennonite Reserve’. There were later waves of Mennonite immigration from Prussia or Russia in the early twentieth century, in the 1920s after the Bolshevik victory and in the late 1940s following World War II. Some more conservative Mennonites emigrated to Mexico or Paraguay in the early twentieth century, a reaction to new provincial legislation which abolished instruction in languages other than English in schools. German Lutherans and Catholics also settled in the region. As far as Provencher is concerned, however, the Mennonite presence has been larger. In 2011, 35.8% of residents identified their religion as ‘other Christian’, a category including Mennonite. Roman Catholics made up 23.6%, 19.5% claimed no religious affiliation and only 6.3% identified with the United Church of Canada and 4.8% as Lutheran.

The family structure reflects the strong Mennonite presence. 60.8% of the population over 15 were married in 2011, one of the highest rates of all 308 ridings. 82.4% of the 27,440 census families that year were married couples, and only 9.1% of census families were lone-parent families. In 2006, Provencher had the lowest percentage of lone-parent families.

German was the largest ancestry declared in 2011, with no less than 35.7%. Some Mennonites began identifying as Dutch to escape association with Germany during World War I, so there is a sizeable share claiming Dutch origins (8.9%). There are also significant Ukrainian (13.8%), Russian (10.1%) and Belgian (2.5%) communities. In contrast to Brandon-Souris, a fairly WASP riding, only 28.8% of the population claimed English, Scottish, Irish or other British Isles ancestry.

Once again, the German influence can be seen in place names: Steinbach, the largest city in the riding, Hanover RM, Hochstadt, Kleefeld, Friedensfeld or Grunthal. The German Mennonite population is highest in Hanover RM (51.7% German ancestry, 72.7% other Christian) and Steinbach (51.7% German ancestry, 56.7% other Christian) but also in Franklin RM, Morris RM, La Broquerie RM and Niverville. 17.3% of residents in 2011 identified German as their mother tongue and 7.5% still spoke German most often at home.

Like in Brandon-Souris, only 9% of the labour force are employed in agriculture and related industries the riding; the main industries being construction (11.3%), manufacturing (10.1%) and healthcare (9.8%). The leading occupations in 2011 were trades/transport (22.3%), sales and services (18.3%), business/finance/administration (14.3%) and management (11.9%). The median household income was $63,156 and 15% were low income after tax in 2010. As is the case in most ‘rural’ ridings, education levels are rather low. In 2011, 29% had no certifications of any kind and 28.9% only had a high school diploma. Of the 42% with post-sec qualifications, most came from colleges or trades/apprenticeship schools as only 10.8% of the population in 2011 had a university degree at the bachelor level or above.

Provencher has existed as a riding under that name since 1871, and it has always included parts of southeast Manitoba – at the least, the areas south of Steinbach and east of the Red River. George Étienne Cartier, John A. Macdonald’s Quebec ally, was acclaimed in the riding in 1872 following his defeat in Montreal. Louis Riel, the famous Métis leader of the Red River and North-West rebellions, was elected thrice – in a 1873 by-election following Cartier’s death, the 1874 federal election and in a 1874 by-election following his own expulsion from the House. However, Riel was living in exile in the US at the time and never sat, and was finally unseated and declared an outlaw in 1875. Between 1878 and 1904, the riding was represented by Francophone Conservative MPs. The Liberals gained the seat in 1904 and held it until 1957, with two Francophone Liberals serving between 1921 and 1957. In the 1917 conscription election, Provencher was one of two ridings east of Ontario which elected a Laurier Liberal (anti-conscription) member, given the riding’s large anti-conscription/anti-war French and German populations (although Mennonites still largely kept outside of politics). In the following decades, the large Francophone/Métis and German Mennonite population made the seat a Liberal stronghold. Social Credit had a foothold with French and German voters, and won 29.7% in 1957. The Francophones’ political domination of the riding decreased in the 1950s, as German Mennonite immigrants became more politically active.

The PCs gained the riding in Diefenbaker’s first victory in 1957, and, with the exception of the Trudeaumania election of 1968, would hold it until 1993. German Mennonite, small-c conservatives to begin with, became a reliable Tory constituency as the Tories slowly transformed from the party of the central Canadian WASP elite to a broad-based party appealing to conservative voters in rural Western Canada. Jake Epp, a Mennonite, held the seat for the PCs between 1972 and his retirement in 1993. Liberal support in the riding declined, and the Grits placed third behind the NDP in 1979, 1980 and 1984.

The Liberals regained the seat in 1993, with 44% against 36.8% for Reform and 10.3% for the PCs. Liberal MP David Iftody, a socially conservative Catholic, won reelection with a 5% majority over Reform in 1997 (40 to 35.1). In 2000, however, Alliance star candidate Vic Toews, a Paraguayan-born Mennonite, defeated Iftody with a 17 point majority (52.8% vs 35.6%). Toews was reelected with even larger majorities in the last four elections. In 2011, Toews won 70.6% of the vote against 17.9% for the NDP, a 53 point majority. As in other Western Canadian ridings, Liberal support in the constituency collapsed over the course of the last four elections: a consistent drop from 24.9% in 2004 to 6.7% in 2011. The NDP placed second ahead of the Grits in 2008 and 2011.

Results of the 2011 federal election in Provencher (source: election-atlas.ca)

In the 2011 election, Vic Toews won all but one polls – the Roseau River Reserve, where the NDP won 58%. The Conservatives did best in the German Mennonite areas, where they won over 80% of the vote (and even over 90% in a few polls) in almost every single poll – and the few polls where they didn’t, they still won well over 70%. The German Mennonite areas post astounding results for the Tories, both provincially and federally. Francophone areas have shifted to the Tories since the late 1990s, and Toews also won every Francophone poll in 2008 and 2011, although by smaller margins than the German polls. For example, he won in the 50s or high 40s in polls in Lorette, Ste. Anne and St-Pierre-Jolys.

In the 1997 and 2000 federal elections, a fairly clear split is visible between the Francophone areas – which voted Liberal by large margins – and the German areas – which voted Reform/Alliance by large margins as well. The Liberals also did well in the remote town of Pinawa in the Canadian Shield, which was home to a nuclear research facility which was decommissioned beginning in 1998. Even in 2004, the Liberals still won a handful of polls in Franco-Manitoban towns such as Ste. Anne, St-Pierre-Jolys, Lorette or Saint-Malo; while Toews was already scoring over 80% in the Mennonite Reserve (Steinbach/Hanover). In 2008 and 2011, a lot of Liberal voters in these towns shifted over to the NDP. In 2011, the NDP managed decent second place showings in most of these towns, especially in Ste. Anne and Lorette, where the Dippers took over 30% in most polls.

The socially conservative right-wing Christian Heritage Party won 1.3% in 2011 and 3.2% in 2008; they did quite well in the Mennonite Reserve areas in 2008, placing distant seconds or thirds behind the Tories but ahead of the Grits and/or Dippers.

The riding was the least interesting of the four by-elections. The Conservatives nominated Ted Falk, a Mennonite credit union president from Steinbach. The Liberals nominated their 2011 candidate, retired public servant Terry Hayward. The NDP candidate was Natalie Courcelles Beaudry, the Greens ran Janine Gibson.

Forum Research showed the Tories leading the field by reduced but comfortable margins in their four polls between October and November, but the Tory advantage dropped from 27% in their first poll in mid-October to only 11 points in their final poll on November 22. The Conservatives fell from 56% to 48%, while the Liberals increased from 29% to 37%.

Turnout was only 33.9%. Unlike in Brandon-Souris, where turnout dropped by about 13 points, turnout in Provencher collapsed by 27.9%. In Brandon-Souris, only 7,521 less votes were cast in 2013 than in 2011, but in Provencher, there were 17,021 less votes.

Ted Falk (Conservative) 58.20% (-12.40%)
Terry Hayward (Liberal) 29.94% (+23.23%)
Natalie Courcelles Beaudry (NDP) 8.22% (-9.67%)
Janine Gibson (Green) 3.64% (+0.69%)

Unsurprisingly, the Tories held the seat without any trouble. Like in Brandon-Souris, however, the Tories underpolled significantly in Forum’s polls – an 11 point lead in the final poll, while they ended up winning by no less than 28 points. My observations and speculation as to why the polls fumbled these two Manitoba by-elections so badly while doing a slightly better job at predicting the two other (urban) by-elections likely apply in this case as well.

Again, as in Brandon-Souris, the Tories’ victory shouldn’t hide the fact that the Liberals performed very well – their best % share since 2000 and their highest raw vote since 2004 (despite much lower turnout than in 2004). The Liberals gained 4,066 votes from their meagre harvest in 2011 – despite turnout dropping by over 17,000 votes. The Conservatives were the main losers, naturally, with 14,774 less votes than in May 2011. The NDP also lost 5,208 votes from their 2011 result. It would certainly appear as if a lot of the Liberal gains came directly at the expense of the Tories and the NDP, like in Brandon-Souris but unlike in the two other by-elections. It is worth repeating that it is a rather spectacular performance for the Liberals, who had been obliterated in this (and similar) ridings in the last two elections and who didn’t even a prominent star candidate like they did in Brandon-Souris.

Toronto Centre, ON

Map of Toronto Centre (source: Elections Canada)

Toronto Centre covers the heart of downtown Toronto, including neighborhoods such as Cabbagetown, St. James Town, Regent Park, Church and Wellesley, the Garden District, the eastern portion of the University of Toronto (UofT) and the affluent ‘enclave’ of Rosedale.

The riding became vacant following the resignation of Liberal MP Bob Rae, the former interim leader of the Liberal Party (2011-2013) and NDP Premier of Ontario (1990-1995), on July 31, 2013. Rae entered politics for the NDP in the late 1970s, as a federal NDP MP between 1978 and 1982 before switching to provincial politics to become the leader of the Ontario NDP. Rae’s NDP supported Liberal Premier David Peterson’s minority government between 1985 and 1987 and became Leader of the Opposition following the 1987 provincial election, when the Tories dropped to third place. Rae’s NDP won a surprise majority government in the 1990 election, making Rae the first – and, to date, only – NDP Premier of Ontario. His premiership remains negatively perceived, a result of the government’s inexperience, a major recession and backtracking on several policies such as public auto insurance. His austerity policies to tackle the recession (the Social Contract) caused huge strains with organized labour, historic allies of the CCF/NDP. The ONDP was crushed by Mike Harris’ PCs in the 1995 election, and Rae retired from politics. Howard Hampton, a left-wing rival of Rae who was critical of some Rae policies, replaced him as NDP leader and dissociated the NDP from the Rae years. Rae returned to politics for the federal Liberal Party, running for the party leadership at the 2006 convention, ending third on the third ballot. He was elected to the House from Toronto Centre in a 2008 by-election and reelected in 2008 and 2011. As a leading Liberal MP, Rae gained a reputation as a competent and intelligent member and was selected as interim Liberal leader in May 2011 following the election defeat. Originally, the interim leader was barred from running for the leadership in 2013, but as Rae turned out to be a strong leader who placed the Liberals as leading opponents of the government after Layton’s death and before Mulcair’s election, there was widespread speculation that the rules would be changed and Rae would run. In a surprise turn, he declined to run and resigned a few months after Trudeau’s victory to become a First Nations negotiator.

Toronto Centre is a diverse riding, with marked contrasts. It includes both poor immigrant neighbourhoods with high-rise apartment and social housing, gentrified professional middle-class neighbourhoods, Toronto’s gay village but also Rosedale, one of the wealthiest neigbourhoods in all of Canada.

Taken as a whole, the riding stands out on a number of census measures, reflecting its cosmopolitan, downtown nature. It has a high percentage of working-age adults, with relatively few children or seniors – in 2011, 91% of the population was aged 15 or over, one of the highest in Canada, while the median age (37.8) was fairly low, indicating a large presence of younger adults. Most residents were actually single and never married (45.3%) while only 29.2% were married and not separated, some of the highest and lowest numbers in the country. Households in the riding, on average, have few children (the average number of children per census family was 0.8) and a majority (62% in 2011) were actually one-person households. However, immigrant-heavy lower income neighborhoods and Rosedale both have a higher proportion of children; for example, in low income Regent Park only 78% of the population was older than 15.

Toronto Centre is a diverse, multicultural riding – 40.8% of residents in 2011 identified as visible minorities, which is high by Canadian standards but many GTA ridings have much higher numbers. The leading visible minority groups were South Asians (9% of the population), Chinese (8.3%), black (7.7%) and Filipino (4.6%). While the wealthy enclave of Rosedale remains very much a ‘white English’ neighbourhood, poorer areas have huge non-white populations – 81.4% in Regent Park or 73.4% in St. James Town, to name only two.

The largest ethnic origin declared in 2011 was English, but with only 19.8% of the population. Other major ancestries included Irish (15.2%), Scottish (14.8%), Canadian (13.3%), Chinese (9.3%), German (7.3%), French (7.3%) and East Indian (5.2%). Similarly, while English was the mother tongue for 59.9% of residents, 34.5% said their mother tongue was a non-official language – the leading such languages being Chinese/Mandarin/Cantonese, Bengali, Tagalog and Spanish.

Unsurprisingly for this kind of riding, 34% in 2011 had no religious affiliation – the middle-class professional areas showing the highest rates, while affluent Rosedale and some of the immigrant areas had lower levels.

Toronto Centre is one of the most educated ridings in Canada, with 50% holding a university degree at the bachelor’s level or above and only 8.9% without any certifications of any kind. As a nice indicator of the kind of riding we’re dealing with, Toronto Centre has some of the highest percentages across Canada’s 308 ridings of degrees in social and behavioural sciences and law (13.5% of the 15+ population), humanities (6.8%) and visual and performing arts, and communications technologies (6.1%) There is a significant percentage of business, management and public admin degrees (17.3%) but comparatively few in architecture or engineering (7.5%).

On a similar note, occupations in social science/education/government service (15.5%) or in art/culture/recreation and sports (8.5%) were overrepresented compared to both the provincial and federal averages. Business/finance jobs, the second largest occupational category following sales and services (which were underrepresented compared to Ontario or Canada), employed 19.2% of the labour force and 14.3% had management occupations. The major industries, according to the NAICS categories, are professional, scientific and technical services (15.9%); finance and insurance (11.6%); healthcare (8.9%) and educational services (8.5%). Retail trade, which employs 11.3% of Canadian workers, in contrast employed only 7.8% of residents in this riding.

Individuals by income decile in Toronto Centre, Ontario and Toronto CMA (2011 NHS)

Individuals by income decile in Toronto Centre, Ontario and Toronto CMA (2011 NHS)

The riding’s major contrasts are best seen when looking at income. Although it is a well educated, fairly young, highly mobile and cosmopolitan riding, there are significant pockets of deprivation contrasting with wealthy enclaves. The median household income of $49,773 in 2010 was significantly below the Canadian level ($61,072) and Toronto CMA level ($70,365). On the other hand, the average household income – $95,451 – was slightly above the Toronto CMA and significantly higher than the Canadian average household income ($79,102). The prevalence of low income, 26.4%, was over ten points higher than the Canadian average. In poor neighbourhoods, up to 50% of residents may fall under the low income cutoff rate while in Rosedale, that proportion drops to low single digits.

There are there major wealth gaps in Toronto Centre. According to the 2011 NHS, 20% of individuals were in the bottom decile while an almost identical number were in the top decile – that makes 40% of the population living at the extreme ends of the income scale. The graph to the left clearly shows the income disparities in the riding compared to the province and the Toronto CMA.

In economic, social and political terms, Bloor Street forms a sharp boundary between the ‘north’ and ‘south’ of the riding. North of Bloor, the neighbourhoods of Rosedale, Moore Park and Yorkville are all very affluent (Rosedale, it is worth repeating, is one of the wealthiest places in all of Canada) with leafy, secluded residential streets with single-detached homes and sprawling lawns. Yorkville, a more central neighborhood, is a high-end shopping district with some of the most expensive real estate (condos) in Toronto.

South of Bloor offers a wide mix of neighborhoods. Regent Park, St. James Town, Trefann Court and parts of Moss Park are low-income neighborhoods, with large immigrant (visible minority) populations and a significant share of the population living in poverty. These areas have historically been low-income, originally home to Irish or ‘ethnic white’ working-class immigrants, and today home to immigrants from Asia, Africa or the Caribbean. Regent Park has a large South Asian (Bengali) population while St. James Town, the most densely populated area in Canada, has a large Filipino population. Housing largely consists of older high-rise apartment towers or social housing projects.

Other parts of the riding, along Yonge Street near Ryerson University, UofT and further south towards the waterfront, are bustling commercial, business or retail downtown areas. Church and Wellesley, in the centre of the riding, is known as Toronto’s gay village.

Cabbagetown, formerly an Irish working-class neighborhood, has been at the forefront of gentrification since the 1970. Rowhouses have been refurbished and have attracted well-off and highly educated professionals – lawyers, doctors, journalists – but also artists, musicians, academics and social workers. Corktown has been gentrifying in the past decade or so.

The riding was historically something of a Conservative stronghold, as much of Toronto was prior to World War II and mass immigration. The riding of Rosedale, an elongated riding similar to the present-day seat, was created in 1933. The Tories represented predecessor seats for the bulk of the period since Confederation, and held Rosedale between 1935 and 1949, when the Liberals gained the seat and held it by narrow margins until Diefenbaker’s victories in 1957 and 1958. Liberal candidate Donald S. Macdonald went on to hold the seat between 1962 and 1978, serving in cabinet under Trudeau and famously chairing a Royal Commission which recommended a free trade agreement with the US. David Crombie, an urban reformist who served as mayor of Toronto between 1974 and 1978, gained the seat for the PCs in 1978 and held it until 1988. While the Tories held the seat by a hair in 1988, the Liberals, with Bill Graham, won the seat in 1993 with a 28% margin over the PCs. Graham, who later served as Minister of Foreign Affairs (2002-2004) and Minister of National Defence (2004-2006), was reelected with large majorities four times. The NDP became the Liberals’ main (distant) rival in the riding after 2004 (they also placed second in 1997), winning around 24% in 2004 and 2006 against over 50% for the Liberals.

Graham, who briefly served as Liberal interim leader after 2006, stepped down in 2008, allowing Bob Rae to win the seat in a by-election with a 46-point majority over the NDP (who won only 14%). In 2008, he was reelected with 53.5% against 18% for the Tories and 15% for the NDP. The Greens performed well in both the earlier by-election and the October 2008 general election, taking 13% and 12% respectively.

The 2011 election was the closest race since 1988, as the Liberals suffered heavy loses largely at the NDP’s expense. Rae was reelected, but with a much thinner (but nevertheless fairly comfortable) 10.8% majority, taking 41% to the NDP’s 30.2%. The Conservatives won 22.6%, their best result in years. However, the Conservatives are now rather weak in the riding. The Harper Tories, too closely tied to the Western right-populist tradition of the Reform/Alliance and perceived as socially conservative, are a poor fit for this riding, even in the affluent areas which should normally provide a solid base for the Tories. The quip about the Liberals’ 2011 voters being “too smart to vote Tory, too rich to vote NDP” holds some weight in Toronto Centre, and other similar ‘urban core’ ridings.

The Liberals’ much-reduced majority made for a very interesting map in the 2011 election. In their previous landslides in the 1990s and 2000s, the Liberals had won almost every single poll, north or south of Bloor, masking the differences between the northern and southern halves of the riding. Indeed, one of the main reasons behind the Liberals’ strength in this riding since the 1990s has been their ability, unmatched by the Tories or NDP, to ‘bridge’ the two halves of the riding and win substantial support both in affluent polls and in the high-rise, multiethnic neighbourhoods. The 2011 election did not break that pattern, but the Liberals suffered loses to the Tories in the affluent polls and to the NDP in the yuppie/artsy downtown polls and the low-income immigrant areas.

Results of the 2011 federal election in Toronto Centre (source: election-atlas.ca)

In 2011, the NDP won slightly more polls than the Liberals (125 regular polls vs. 108, 22 for the Tories). However, they did not win any poll north of Bloor – in fact, the NDP only placed second (ahead of the Tories) in one poll north of Bloor, a small poll covering high-rise apartments. In the most affluent parts of Rosedale and Moore Park, the NDP won less than 10% of the vote. On the other hand, the NDP were very strong south of Bloor. The Dippers won low-income immigrant areas such as Regent Park, St. James Town and Trefann Court; but also the areas around Ryerson University, the socioeconomically diverse Garden District and Moss Park, housing coops near the waterfront and the trendy cosmopolitan Church and Wellesley area. The Liberals had done well in all of these areas prior to 2011, in fact Regent Park had usually been one of the Liberals’ strongest neighbourhoods, with over 60% (if not 70%) support in years such as 2006 and 2008. There were large swings to the NDP in Regent Park, but also in most areas south of Bloor, including in more middle-class parts of neighbourhoods such as Moss Park, where the Greens had done very well in 2008.

North of Bloor, the Conservatives won the wealthiest parts of Rosedale, Moore Park but also the high-end downtown Yorkville area. In between the two, the Liberals’ best results came from Cabbagetown, a place where the line “too smart to vote Tory, too rich to vote NDP” might really apply; the NDP doesn’t do all that well there – in 2008, they placed behind the Greens in most polls – and the Conservatives are very weak. The Liberals did well in the Old Town, a bustling downtown area where most votes are probably cast in new condo developments. That area is also one of the few places south of Bloor where the Conservatives do decently well, often placing second behind the Liberals.

The 2011 maps show a clear contrast between north and south, and explain why the Liberals have the upper hand. The NDP, in 2011, was able to record major swings south of Bloor, but it failed to make any inroads in the riding’s affluent northern end. The Conservatives’ hopes of actually winning the seat are even lesser, given that the bulk of votes are cast south of Bloor, where the Conservatives place third in almost every single poll. The Liberals, in contrast, placed first or second in just about every poll in 2011, regardless of location, and effectively did just as well in affluent homeowner areas of Rosedale and Moore Park than in poor(er) renters areas south of Bloor.

Toronto Centre was the most closely watched race, even though it wasn’t the closest battle. It received so much attention from the media because of its location (by-elections in Toronto tend to draw far more media coverage, at least in English Canada, than by-elections in some far-off rural place nobody knows about) and because the Liberals and NDP both recruited high-profile candidates. Both Trudeau and Mulcair invested significant political capital in the riding: for Trudeau, holding the highly mediatized riding was a must, while for the NDP, winning a seat from the Liberals would be a huge boost. However, the NDP likely understood that winning the seat as it stands was an uphill battle given the NDP’s challenges mentioned above. Instead, the NDP was more realistically aiming for a strong result in preparation for 2015. The 2015 federal election will be fought on entirely new boundaries across Canada, in 338 ridings instead of 308. Toronto Centre, which saw significant population growth (with condos and whatnot) since 2003, was overpopulated with over 130,000 residents in 2011.

The final report of the boundary commission shrank the riding of Toronto Centre, removing everything north of Bloor (and also the area around UofT) and the waterfront area. Rosedale and the other areas north of Bloor were merged with the northern half of the neighbouring riding of Trinity-Spadina to create the seat of University-Rosedale. The University-Rosedale riding, the two-thirds of which come from NDP MP Olivia Chow’s riding of Trinity-Spadina, has a solid NDP notional majority of 12.3% (43.2% vs. 30.9% for the Liberals). The new Toronto Centre is still notionally Liberal, but with a small 3.1% majority. Therefore, it’s understandable why the Dippers wanted to hit the ground running with a strong campaign, even if ultimately unsuccessful, in the old riding before the 2015 election. A solid run would provide the NDP with solid footing for the next federal election.

% vote for the NDP by poll in Toronto Centre, 2011 federal election (source: election-atlas.ca)

The Liberals nominated Chrystia Freeland, a journalist who worked for the Financial Times and later The Globe and Mail. Freeland moved to Toronto in the summer of 2013, having previously lived in New York City. She published a book on income inequality, Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, in October 2012. The NDP nominated Linda McQuaiq, a former journalist, columnist and writer. As a columnist (often for the Toronto Star) and a writer, McQuaiq has focused on issues such as universal social programs, ‘big oil’, progressive taxation and income inequality. Indeed, like her Liberal rival, McQuaiq published a book on income inequality, The Trouble with Billionaires, in 2010.

The Tories nominated corporate lawyer Geoff Pollock and the Greens nominated John Deverell, another journalist. Seven other candidates also ran, including John Turmel, who ran in his 79th election.

The battle between Freeland and McQuaig was rather bloody. McQuaiq accused her rival of not seeing inequality as a problem in her book (referring to it as part of the ‘creative destruction of capitalism’), although Freeland insists she does see it as a problem – but mostly because of the ‘hollowing out’ of the middle-class. Freeland’s rhetoric in the campaign mostly focused on the middle-class, an issue at the forefront of Trudeau’s pitch and a major problem in Toronto, where researchers have pointed to the ‘disappearing’ middle-class and the polarization of the city between rich and poor – a gap very much visible in Toronto Centre, which might have one of the highest Gini indexes in all of Canada. Freeland said that McQuaiq and the Dippers subscribe to the ‘outdated’ “simple take-from-the-rich, give-to-the-poor” solution. In her book, McQuaig advocated for steep marginal tax rate increases of 60% for those earning about $500,000 a year and 70% for those earning $2.5 million. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair having ruled out income tax increases, McQuaig was forced to fall in line with NDP policy. Freeland said she opposes the income tax hikes backed by her rival but also the corporate tax increases which form part of NDP policy, arguing that taxation is part of the middle-class ‘squeeze’ and that corporate tax increases would hurt Canada’s competitiveness in the global economy. She is critical, however, of new tax credits introduced by the Conservative government, which many feel offer tax breaks for the wealthy.

The two candidates and their campaigns threw mud at one another and tried to play on wedge issues. Freeland was attacked for spending too much time outside Canada and only moving back to the country this summer; the NDP also said she admired Margaret Thatcher and she drew flack for referring to Sarah Palin as a ‘feminist hero’ in a newspaper column once. The NDP tried to capitalize on potential unease about Trudeau with left-wing progressive voters by drawing attention to Trudeau’s support for the Keystone XL pipeline and criticizing Freeland for campaigning with Liberal MP John McKay, one of the few Grit MPs to vote against same-sex marriage. The Liberals, on the other hand, drew attention to a column by McQuaig praising Hugo Chávez (and a photo of her shaking hands with Chávez) or to her former opulent home in suburban Oakville.

Forum Research confirmed the Liberals were the favourites, although the NDP made inroads as the campaign progressed. In June, before candidates were known, Forum found the NDP in third with 20%, against 49% for the Grits and 25% for the Tories. However, in October, Forum showed the Liberals leading the NDP by 15 (45-30), a lead which narrowed to 8 in the last poll on November 24, which had the Liberals up 47-39 to the NDP. While the Liberals and NDP increased their standings, the Tories and the Greens saw their support decline over the course of the campaign.

Turnout was 38.2%, down 24.7% from 62.9% in 2011.

Chrystia Freeland (Liberal) 49.38% (+8.37%)
Linda McQuaig (NDP) 36.30% (+6.09%)
Geoff Pollock (Conservative) 8.63% (-14.01%)
John Deverell (Green) 2.97% (-2.05%)
Dorian Baxter (PC) 1.3%
Judi Falardeau (Libertarian) 0.68% (+0.18%)
Kevin Clarke (Ind) 0.24%
John Turmel (Ind) 0.16%
Leslie Bory (Ind) 0.15%
Michael Nicula (Online) 0.12%
Bahman Yazdanfar (Ind) 0.07% (-0.12%)

The Liberals held Toronto Centre with an expanded majority of 12.8% (up from 10.8% in 2011). Both the Liberals and the NDP made gains, however – as far as percentages of the vote are concerned. The Liberals won 49.4%, up about 8.4% from 2011, while the NDP expanded their share of the vote by about 6 points, winning 36% – which is certainly their best result since I don’t know when. In contrast, the Tories were very much squeezed by the extremely polarized contest and depressed turnout, and their vote share dropped to only 8.6%, an horrible result. While the Tories have been on a downwards trend compared to the 1980s, the Tories have always been able to maintain a decent vote (their lowest being 12% in another by-election, in 2008), even during the days of the divided right when the PCs nevertheless polled between 21% (1993, with an incumbent) and 17% (2000). It is of course worth remembering that this is not unusual for by-elections: they tend to turn into two-way races far more than general elections (when a favourable national trend for the party may lift the local candidate up, even if the local candidate’s campaign is weak) and the Tories have a record of ignoring by-elections which they know are unwinnable (to focus their resources on defending seats or attacking winnable seats).

Winning was always an uphill battle for the NDP given the current make-up of the seat. However, they ran a strong campaign and won a good result, which kind of makes up for the terrible results in Manitoba and the flat result in Quebec. The NDP, perhaps with McQuaig as their candidate, will stand a good chance of winning the redistributed riding of Toronto Centre in 2015. PunditsGuide.ca tweeted that her rough calculations on election night still gave the Grits an edge in the redistributed riding, with 48% to the NDP’s 43% – up from 39.6% and 36.5% on the 2011 notional results. According to these same rough numbers, the Liberals also made substantial gains in the portion of the new University-Rosedale in the current riding, from 45% in 2011 to 59% in the by-election (the Tory vote collapsed from 35.8% to about 19%, tied with the NDP).

It is important to temper the talk of “Liberal gains” or “NDP gains” or stuff about the NDP or Liberal building on/solidifying their 2011 vote. In reality, neither the Liberals or NDP made substantial gains when it came to raw votes: the Liberal vote fell by 5,638 ballots and the NDP shed 4,178 votes. Of course, the Conservatives were much heavier – they lost 9,600 votes compared to the 2011 election (the Greens also lost substantially, polling a full 1,762 votes less than in 2011). While there were likely voters who turned out in both 2011 and 2013 who switched their votes from one party to another (for example, there were likely some 2011 Conservative voters in Rosedale who voted Liberal; the Liberals apparently swept Rosedale, like in pre-2011 elections), the more likely explanation of the results overall is that the Liberals and NDP did the best job at retaining their votes from 2011 while the Tories and Greens did a terrible job at it.

Conclusion

By-elections remain by-elections: trying to draw nationwide conclusions from them will always remain a complicated, futile and often silly exercise. By-elections have different dynamics than general elections: the local ‘can’t win here’ parties are squeezed in more polarized races and poll less than they would in a general election, turnout is in almost all cases down rather significantly from the last general election (and in almost all cases the turnout in the next general election is higher than in the by-election) and some races may be more affected by local factors and candidate notoriety/strength than in general elections. That being said, it’s obviously not impossible or completely useless to draw some conclusions from the results. And, at the very least, by-elections offer an often reasonably accurate snapshot of what certain people in certain parts are thinking.

cdnby2

The table above shows the results expressed in raw votes rather than percentages, which is arguably just as important to look at than raw percentages in a by-election scenario.

The Liberals are the clear winners of these four by-elections: they made gains, in percentage terms, in all four riding; they held their two seats; they made major gains in two hitherto Conservative citadels where the Liberal brand had been dead in the last two elections (at least) and they increased their raw vote across all four ridings by 1,637 votes despite turnout being much lower than in 2011 (-65,499 votes). Of course, the Liberals fell short of winning what had been looking to be a likely gain (Brandon-Souris) and underperformed the polls in Provencher. In Bourassa and Toronto Centre, while the Liberals expanded their majority and their share of the vote, they lost votes from 2011 and their share of the vote was – while higher than in the annus horribilis 2011 – still on the lower end of historical Liberal results in those seats since 1993 (the same wasn’t true, of course, for the two MB seats where the Liberal result was the best in years if not decades). Still, those are fairly minor issues. The Liberals had the best retention of any party in Bourassa and Toronto Centre and they directly gained at the Tories and Dippers’ expense in Manitoba. These elections confirm that, for the time being, Trudeau’s Liberals are being seen as the strongest alternative to Harper’s Conservatives for 2015. That may change, especially in a fickle country like Canada. Trudeau is still showing clear signs of weakness when it comes to being coherent with policy and a knack for saying or doing boneheaded things. On election night in Toronto, he somewhat disgracefully attempted to claim Jack Layton’s mantle by presenting the Liberals as those showing that ‘hope is stronger than fear, that positive politics can and should win out over negative’ and saying that the NDP is now a negative, divisive party and no longer Layton’s hopeful and optimistic party. In the heat of a gruelling federal election campaign – one which is shaping up to be close to a three-way toss-up – Trudeau’s really going to need to step up his game against two strong opponents.

The NDP, on balance, were net losers of the by-elections. Their major bright spot was Toronto Centre, where their strong and high-profile candidate won a solid 36% of the vote and held about three-quarters of the NDP’s 2011 votes. That places them on solid footing for 2015 in the new riding, and might be interpreted as a sign that the progressive base in downtown Toronto isn’t all that enamoured by Trudeau. Their result in Bourassa wasn’t too shabby either, although they only retained 47% of their 2011 ballots. Still, it does show that the NDP is still in the game in Quebec, where its ability to defend its 2011 Orange Crush results might be make-or-break for the party come 2015. In Manitoba, however, the NDP was crushed – squeezed by Lib-Con battles, worn down by the unpopularity of the provincial Dipper government and hurt by low turnout.

The main losers were the Conservatives, who had a bad night. The only bright spot proved to be the surprise hold in Brandon-Souris, a relief for many Tories and salvation from a near-death experience in a Tory stronghold. They also overperformed their polling numbers in Provencher. On the whole, however, there are few silver linings for the Tories in these numbers. They ignored Bourassa and Toronto Centre, so understandably they were crushed, but even the size of their shellacking they got in those seats was surprising. Unlike in past by-elections, the Conservatives were not able to go on the offensive in any of these by-elections, a strategy which had worked for them in by-elections under the 39th and 40th Parliaments (seat gains in Quebec, Ontario). In the two Manitoba ridings, despite Tory holds, the Conservatives lost over 10,000 votes in each and their share of the vote fell drastically from 2011. The Liberals proved to be a threat to the Tory hold on hitherto solid Tory citadels in the Prairies, and if that’s repeated across Western Canada in 2015 that is very bad news for the Tories (who are already facing some trouble in Ontario, the other part of the winning formula from 2011).

As mentioned in the introduction, the Tories are perhaps at their lowest ebb since 2006. Harper’s teflon is wearing off and there is rising unease within Tory ranks about PMO centralism in his governance. Although Harper insisted over the summer that he will be a candidate in 2015, but an informed comment piece by John Ivision in the National Post on December 4 indicated that there is speculation that Harper may actually resign after returning from an Israel-Mid East trip pushed up to early 2014. In the past few days, there have been cracks in the Conservative cabinet. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Employment Minister and potential leadership contender Jason Kenney confronted one another over Toronto’s embattled right-wing mayor Rob Ford, with Flaherty offering an angry response (“shut the fuck up”) to Kenney’s call on Ford to resign – and it apparently almost got physical. Ivision commented on simmering divisions between cabinet ministers.

The Bloc Québécois was unlucky that the first post-2011 by-election in which it had a chance to prove itself was held in a Liberal stronghold where the Bloc has been increasingly weak. With a poor candidate adding to the Bloc’s troubles across the province, they had a poor showing. Bloc leader Daniel Paillé stood down as leader of the party on December 16 for health reasons (he has epilepsy); but it’s also perhaps partly because he knew that the Bloc is increasingly going nowhere. The party has a tiny caucus, an anonymous leadership, low coverage in the media and little interest from the public. They will have a tough time recruiting a leader who feels that they can take the Bloc somewhere in 2015, and be able to successfully challenge the NDP and the Liberals for the attention and support of Quebec Francophone voters.

The Greens had a poor run as well, losing votes in every riding and increasing their vote share in only a single seat (and not by much). Elizabeth May’s ill-advised decision to promote Laraque in Bourassa in a futile attempt to give the Greens a beachhead in a province where the party is dead fell flat on its face and may have hurt the financially cash-strapped party a lot. In other ridings, the Greens had little-known candidates and the national party did not target any of those seats. In Toronto Centre, the Greens, who have potential in the riding, found themselves squeezed even more by the high-profile Liberal-NDP contest. There, the Greens’ vote suffered the most – falling 2.1% and retaining only 37% of their 2011 ballots (compared to 60-70% in the 3 other seats). Elizabeth May’s micro-targeting/beachhead strategy yielded positive results in 2011 (the first Green MP, May herself) and 2012 (strong results in Victoria and Calgary by-elections), but on the other hand that strategy will not increase the Green vote in ridings not targeted – in 2011, the Greens’ support nationally fell and the Greens have done poorly in by-elections where they weren’t campaigning hard.

The table confirms my observations on the by-election dynamics which create two-way battles and squeeze third parties out. The Tories retained the most votes – 55% and 47% respectively – in the two seats where they were competitive while in the two other ridings they held only 25% and 24% of their 2011 ballots. The NDP similarly held 47% and 75% of its votes in those seats where they were strong seconds in 2011 but held only 23% and 26% in the two Manitoba seats where they were not competitive and squeezed by the Grits.

These by-elections ultimately yielded a status-quo result. But they also confirmed that the 2015 federal election is looking to be one of the most exciting in recent history, especially if it does turn out to be a three-way race for first and second.

Advertisements

Posted on December 18, 2013, in By-elections, Canada, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: