Niagara Falls and Thornhill (Ontario) provincial by-elections, 2014
Provincial by-elections were held in the Ontario (Canada) ridings of Niagara Falls and Thornhill on February 13, 2014. These seats fell vacant in September and December 2013 following the resignations of their sitting MPPs, respectively from the Liberal Party and the Progressive Conservatives (PC).
We last discussed Ontarian provincial politics following five provincial by-elections in early August last year, all of which were in ridings previously held by the governing (in a minority government) Liberals. The Liberals lost three of these five seats; one to the official opposition PCs and two to the Ontario New Democrats (NDP). The results were, on the whole, bad news for the governing Liberals, who got trounced in Windsor and London by the NDP. At the same time, however, the PCs did poorly: they had been expected, by the polls, to win three of the ridings on that day, but ended up winning only one (Etobicoke-Lakeshore, in Toronto). The Liberals narrowly and surprisingly held Ottawa South, a riding vacated by former Premier Dalton McGuinty (2003-2013) and the NDP shocked the Tories by winning London West, a riding in which the PCs were the favourites. By failing to live up to expectations, therefore, the PCs were portrayed as net losers of the round of by-elections. Opposition leader Tim Hudak’s fiery, tough and incessant attacks on the Liberals did not connect with voters, despite voter fatigue after ten years of Liberal governments and several major scandals and policy mishaps for the Liberals. On the other hand, the NDP, the third party in the legislature but whose leader, Andrea Horwath, is the most popular of the three party leader, were the major winners of the August by-elections. They handily won a seat in Windsor, a traditionally NDP-leaning area, but also picked up London West, a seat which isn’t as friendly to the NDP. That, combined with the NDP’s high-profile victory in Kitchener-Waterloo (a seat held by the PCs) in a 2012 by-election, further boosted the NDP’s profile.
Since the August by-elections, the provincial political scene has been rather quiet or at least predictable. In September, Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne dared the PCs and NDP to cause a snap election but privately confided that she had little desire to go to the polls in the fall. PC leader Tim Hudak, who has been clamoring for an election since day one, continued hounding on the government but also directed some of his fire to the NDP, who has collaborated with the Liberal government and propped it up on several occasions. Hudak accused NDP leader Andrea Horwath of propping up a corrupt and discredited government, unwilling to bring about change. However, Hudak faced trouble in PC ranks. Following the by-elections, there were local and isolated but well publicized grumbling in party ranks over Hudak’s leadership and isolated demands for a leadership review. Later, Hudak was forced to dump his finance critic, Thornhill MPP Peter Shurman amid a scandal and he removed vocal hard-right ‘maverick’ MPP Randy Hillier from the frontbench.
At the same time, there is a widespread feeling that the Liberals are running on borrowed time. Most think that the government will fall on the budget in the spring (likely in March). The PCs will vote against the budget no matter its contents, while the NDP might prove unwilling to extend the Liberals’ lease on government for the third budget in a row. One issue which is already straining relations between the Liberals and the NDP is the question of new tolls or fees to fund public transit: the Liberal government, promoting upgrades to public transit in Toronto and Hamilton, supports new tolls/taxes to raise revenue; the NDP has warned that they will stand against that. Facing attacks from Hudak in propping up the Liberals since 2012, Horwath recently came out more determined, saying that she is “seeking the job of Premier”. If the government falls on the budget, there would be a spring election, likely in April or May.
In the polls, the parties’ standings haven’t budged much since August. The PCs retain a small but fairly consistent edge over the Liberals, generally ranging from 3 to 7 points. A few pollsters, most recently Ipsos-Reid in November, have put the Liberals ahead of the PCs. The NDP has ranged between 23% and 31%, that is, either a more distant third or in serious contention for second (if not first). The latest poll, by Forum Research (Jan. 25-24), had the PCs up 3 on the Liberals (36 to 33) with the NDP at 26%.
Wynne’s decision to call the two by-elections so quickly is certainly a calculated means for her and the Liberals to test the waters (in two marginal ridings) before an election.
Niagara Falls includes the city of Niagara Falls and the towns of Fort Erie and Niagara-on-the Lake in Niagara Regional Municipality. The riding is located at the eastern edge of the Niagara Peninsula, its eastern border being formed by the Niagara River and the international border with the United States. About 65% of the riding’s population lives in the city of Niagara Falls, which has a population of about 83,000. The riding is particularly famous for its namesake; the spectacular Niagara Falls, one of the top tourist destinations in Ontario. The Canadian ‘side’ of the falls have drawn the most tourist revenue, compared to the rather rundown American ‘side’ of the falls. The Canadian city of Niagara Falls has become notoriously kitsch, particularly the Strip-like Clifton Hill with its gaudy and ostentatious mix of wax museums, clinquant attractions and fast food chains. The quaint colonial town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Niagara’s famous wine country and War of 1812 battlefields also draw a lot of tourists.
The seat fell vacant with the resignation of backbench Liberal MPP Kim Craitor in September 2013. Craitor, who was first elected in 2003, cited mental exhaustion and wanting to focus on his health and family upon resigning. However, he’s since indicated that he plans to run for Niagara Falls city council in the next municipal elections in October 2014; he had been in municipal politics for 13 years before entering the provincial arena.
The riding is tough to describe as a whole: it is a major urban area (as a tourist magnet) in its own right, but it is also clearly influenced by the industrial centres along the Welland Canal and St. Catharines (just next door) and Niagara forms the eastern end of a huge, sprawling urban conglomeration including Toronto and Hamilton (the Golden Horseshoe). Statistically, however, the riding sticks out by the importance of the tourism industry.
In 2001 and 2006 (and probably in 2011 as well), the riding had the highest percentage of persons employed in sales and service occupations in all of Canada’s 308 constituencies: a full 34.4% of the labour force worked in sales and service jobs. About 23% of all Canadians are employed in sales and service occupations. Further reflection of the riding’s tourism-oriented nature is found in the top industries (NAICS): in 2011, the single largest industry was accommodation and food services (15.9% of the labour force), followed by retail trade (11.5%), healthcare (9.2%) manufacturing (8.8%) and arts/entertainment/recreation (8.7%). Comparatively, across Canada, only 6.2% are employed in the accommodation and food services industry and 1.9% in arts/entertainment/recreation. Other main occupations in the riding include trades, transport and equipment operators (14.2%), business/finance/administration occupations (12.8%) and management (9.6%).
There are few perceptible remnants (statistically) of the area’s industrial past. Although tourism has been important to the region since the late 1800s, the hydroelectric power provided by the falls (and ‘immortalized’ by the large number of dams and electrical installations on both sides of the Niagara River, either shut down or still running) allowed for the growth of a large electro-chemical and electro-metallurgical industries in the twentieth century. Across the river, Niagara Falls (NY) was driven by similar industries. In the 1970s and 1980s, those industries in both Canada and the US shutdown with the recession, deindustrialization and foreign competition. Niagara Falls, ON has weathered deindustrialization far better than Niagara Falls, NY and transitioned into a tourism-driven tertiary economy. Factors helping the Ontarian city included the better view of the falls from Canada (although the experience at the American Falls is quite spectacular in its own right), a favourable exchange rate (at the time), Ontario’s focus on tourism, Ontario’s lower drinking age (19) and the opening of casinos on the Canadian side in the mid 90s (Seneca Niagara Casino has since tried to compete with Niagara Falls, ON’s two casinos).
Perhaps due to wages in the tourism industry, the median household income (2010) was $56,537. 53% of the riding’s population fall in the bottom half of the Canadian population (by income decile); 46.5% of Ontarians fall in those same lower five income deciles. However, the percentage of individuals classified as low income after tax was lower than the Canadian average (13.3% vs 14.9%).
The Niagara region has attracted a fairly large retiree population. The median age of the population was 45.1 (40.6 in Canada); 19.3% were aged 65 or over (14.8% in Canada) and 20% of the total income of the riding’s population comes from retirement and pensions (private retirement pensions, superannuation, Canada Pension Plan, Old Age Security), compared to 13.3% of the total income in all of Canada.
The Niagara Peninsula became one of the first areas in Upper Canada to be settled, by United Empire Loyalists at the end of the American Revolution in the 18th century. Most early settlers were British, but also included German Protestants. Niagara-on-the-Lake, which actually served as Upper Canada’s colonial capital between 1792 and 1797, was founded in 1781. The Niagara region was one of the main theaters of action in the War of 1812, with major battles at Queenston Heights, Fort Erie, Chippawa and Lundy’s Lane. Industrial growth and the construction of the Welland Canal in the nineteenth century led to major European immigration, notably from Italy and Germany. According to the 2011 NHS, 30% of riding residents claimed English ancestry, followed by Canadian ancestry (26.2%), Scottish (19.5%), Irish (18.7%), Italian (16.3%), German (15.7%) and French (11.9%). Overall, over 50% of residents identified British Isles ancestries and ‘Canadian’ ethnicity can be taken, partly, as a descriptor for families who have lived in the region for generations. The Italian-descent population is significant in Niagara Falls (19.4%), while German ancestry is higher in Niagara-on-the-Lake and Fort Erie (about 22%). The single largest religious denomination are Catholics (35.5%), followed by other Christians (11.7%), Anglicans (9.2%) and the United Church (7.3%). 23.2% have no religious affiliation.
The visible minority population is small, only 8.1% are visible minorities (the largest groups are blacks and Chinese) and another 2.4% claim Aboriginal identity.
While largely urban, Niagara Falls’ demographics have little in common with an inner city seat. A high percentage of those aged over 15 are married (57.3%), the vast majority of the housing stock is made up of single-detached houses (73.6%) and are owned (76.9%). While Niagara Falls has seen fairly strong population growth, the majority of dwellings are rather old: seven in ten were built in 1980 or before. In terms of education, 31.4% of the 15+ population have a high school diploma as their highest qualification, 48.3% have some kind of postsecondary certifications and 20.4% have no certificate, diploma or degree. 13.8% have a university degree at the bachelor level or above and 21.7% have a college education.
The provincial riding of Niagara Falls has existed since 1914 and has been aligned with the federal riding of the same name since 1999. Federally, the riding of Niagara Falls was created from Welland (Fort Erie and Niagara Falls were part of the old Welland county) and Lincoln (Niagara-on-the-Lake was part of Lincoln county) in 1952; always centered on Niagara Falls, its borders have shifted northwards (towards Niagara-on-the-Lake) or southwards (towards Fort Erie) before taking its current shape in 2003. Without any confirmation, I would imagine the provincial riding of Niagara Falls have been centered on the city itself with the north and south of the current ridings being combined with parts of Lincoln and Welland county-based seats respectively. Between 1999 and 2007, the southern half of the present riding was part of the riding of Erie-Lincoln, represented by current PC leader Tim Hudak (he currently represents Niagara West-Glanbrook).
Provincially, all three parties have held the seat: the Conservatives (1914-1919, 1923-1934, 1945-1948, 1953-1959, 1971-1975, 1995-2003), the CCF or NDP (Labour from 1919 to 1923, CCF from 1943 to 1945 and NDP from 1990 to 1995) and the Liberals (1934-1943, 1948-1953, 1959-1971, 1975-1990, 2003-2013). Federally, however, the NDP or its predecessors have never held the seat. It has been held since 2004 by Conservative MP Rob Nicholson, the current Minister of National Defence.
The Ontario NDP won the riding in the 1990 Bob Rae landslide, with a nearly 20 point majority over the Liberals. However, Bart Maves, the PC candidate, gained the seat with a 13.7% majority on the Liberals and held it with a much tighter 3.5% majority in 1999. In 2003, Liberal candidate Kim Craitor, a longtime municipal politician, defeated Maves with a 8.8% majority (46.9% to 38.1%). In 2007, the Liberals were reelected with 47.5% to the PCs’ 31.2%; in 2011, the Liberal majority fell to only 1.19% – 35.95% against 34.76% for the PCs, while the NDP, running a strong candidate, significantly improved its vote to 26.3% (it placed fourth, behind the Greens, with 9.8% in 2007).
Federally, the Liberals held the seat from 1953 to 1972 – even in the Tory landslide of 1958 – and again from 1974 to 1979, 1980 to 1984 and 1993 to 2004 – but Rob Nicholson, who had first held the seat as a PC MP from 1984 to 1988 (going down to bloody defeat in 1993), regained his old seat with a 2.2% majority in the 2004 federal election. His majority has since expanded while the Liberal vote tanked; in 2011, Nicholson held his seat with a 29.8% majority and it was the NDP, with 23.5%, which placed a distant second.
In the 2011 provincial election, the Liberals drew their narrow victory from Niagara Falls and, to a lesser extent, Niagara-on-the-Lake. The Liberal incumbent, a former Niagara Falls alderman, won all but a handful of polls in the city. The NDP did better in some older, historically working-class neighborhoods of the city (such as Silvertown) while doing slightly poorer in newer suburban subdivisions; in the federal election, the NDP managed to pick up a handful of polls, again largely in the Silvertown area. But just as the Liberals won nearly every poll in Niagara Falls (the city) in the last three provincial elections; the federal Tories have won most polls in the city in the 2008 and 2011 federal elections. In the north, the wealthier and older Niagara-on-the-Lake is disputed between Liberals and Tories, with little NDP support (the Greens outpolled them in 2007 and 2008), with an edge to the provincial Grits in the last two provincial elections. In the 2011 provincial election, the NDP candidate was Wayne Redekop, the former mayor of Fort Erie. With a favourite son vote, he swept most of the urban polls in Fort Erie. His candidacy also created an interesting north-south dynamic: the Liberals placed third in every poll in the municipality of Fort Erie, where the match was played between the NDP and the PCs. While the NDP appears to have some solid natural support in Fort Erie and Crystal Beach, the Liberals were competitive – at both levels of government – in past elections. One constant in the electoral geography, finally, have been the very strong Tory results in the rural polls outside the riding’s three main towns.
All three major party candidates were Niagara Falls city or regional councillors. The Liberals nominated Joyce Morocco, the NDP nominated Wayne Gates and the PCs nominated Bart Maves, who has been regional councillor since 2010 after having served as MPP between 1995 and 2003. Joyce Morocco ran and lost for the federal Liberals in the 2008 election; Gates ran for the federal NDP in 2004 and 2006. Bart Maves tried to regain his old seat, without success, in the 2007 provincial election. Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati endorsed the Liberal candidate. In the 2010 municipal election, in the at-large election for city council, Gates won won 10,879 votes and Morocco won 9,720. Bart Maves won 13,695 votes in a 7-candidate race for three seats on the regional council (Maves’ uncle is a city councillor in Niagara Falls). A PC website branded Wayne Gates, a former union official, as ‘radical Wayne’, leading to an hilarious Tumblr parody.
Wayne Gates (NDP) 39.44% (+13.14%)
Bart Maves (PC) 36.83% (+2%)
Joyce Morocco (Liberal) 19.39% (-16.5%)
Clarke Bitter (Green) 2.73% (+1.11%)
Tim Tredwell (Ind) 0.61% (+0.24%)
Stefanos Karatopis (Libertarian) 0.43% (-0.03%)
Troy Young (PPP) 0.29% (+0.29%)
Andrew Brannan (Freedom) 0.28%
A last minute poll by Forum Research had shown the NDP’s Wayne Gates leading the PCs 48 to 33, with the Liberals standing a distant third with only 17%. As the poll had predicted, the NDP came out victorious, although it was by a much narrower margin: a 2.61% majority over the PCs. Nevertheless, a win is a win, and Niagara Falls is (yet another) significant victory for the Ontario NDP, the fourth seat they pick up after Kitchener-Waterloo (from the PCs in 2012), London West and Windsor-Tecumseh (both from the Liberals in 2013). Like the three other seats they have picked up, this is the kind of riding which the NDP need to win if they are to win the next provincial election (Niagara Falls itself has been a bellwether seat in provincial elections since 1985).
The clear losers are the Liberals, who, like in the three previous NDP gains in this legislature, suffered huge loses and slipped to a distant third. I’ll come back to what this trend means for the Liberals in my general conclusion. While the PCs performance is nowhere near as catastrophic as that of the Liberals, this isn’t a very good performance for them: they are up only 2 points from 2011 and they’re still lower than their 2003 result (38.1%).
Compared to 2011, the NDP made the largest inroads in the city of Niagara Falls, which it won by about ten points (43-33) over the PCs with the Liberals crashing 20 points to 22% (the NDP gained 18%, the PCs gained 2%). It held its ground well in Fort Erie, even making small gains and winning the municipality with a 2 point edge over the PCs; a remarkable performance given that the 2011 result for the NDP in Fort Erie owed a lot to a favourite son vote for the NDP’s local candidate. The NDP remained a distant third in Niagara-on-the-Lake, which the PCs won by 26 points (50-24) over the Liberals, with the NDP nevertheless up ten points to 22%.
Thornhill is an affluent, highly-educated and white-collar suburban riding located directly north of Toronto. The riding includes parts of the municipalities of Vaughan and Markham in York Regional Municipality, and it’s named after Thornhill, the most important neighborhood which straddles the border between the two municipalities (formed by Yonge Street).
The seat became vacant on December 31, 2013 following the resignation of PC MPP and opposition finance critic Peter Shurman in an expense scandal. Shurman had received a housing allowance for a Toronto apartment (despite representing the Toronto area), because he moved his primary residence to Niagara-on-the-Lake. In September 2013, following an ‘heated exchange’, Hudak removed Shurman from his job as PC finance critic. Hudak had asked him to repay his expenses, but Shurman refused and got booted from his frontbench gig as a result In December 2013, it was further revealed that Shurman was claiming mileage from his home in Niagara-on-the-Lake to Toronto as an expense, Shurman was forced to resign his seat. Shurman’s scandal was something of a blow for the PCs, given his prominent frontbench role.
Thornhill is a rather special and unique riding. It is one of two ridings in Canada with a Jewish plurality – the other is the Montreal-area seat of Mount Royal (although in both ridings, all Christian denominations outnumber Jews), with 32.8% of residents being Jewish (the highest in Canada). There are no statistics on the issue, but Thornhill is said to have a large Orthodox Jewish population. 24.2% of residents checked ‘Jewish’ as their ethnic origin, making it the single largest ethnic origin reported. There is a large Eastern European, particularly Russian, population – judging by the geographic distribution of ethnic origin answers (in 2006), almost certainly Jews of Russian or Polish descent. In 2011, 12.2% claimed Russian ancestry (probably the highest in Canada) and 9.3% claimed Polish origins; overall, 24.8% of residents identified some Eastern European descent. There is also a fairly significant Iranian/Persian population (4.7%), which may include some Jews of Iranian background.
The visible minority (non-white) population is fairly significant, albeit not particularly high compared to other GTA ridings. In 2011, 36.9% of the population were visible minorities, the largest group being – by far – Chinese, who made up 12.6% of the total population. In the ethnic origin responses, Chinese was the second largest ethnicity behind Jewish (ahead of Russian), at 13.4%. The Chinese population in the riding is heavily concentrated in the portion of Markham municipality, a spillover from the heavily Chinese riding of Markham-Unionville. Other visible minority groups include South Asians (6.7%), West Asian (4.2%), Filipino (3.9%) and Korean (3.6%). The largest non-Jewish white demographic in the riding are Italians, again a spillover from the heavily Italian community of Woodbridge (in Vaughan municipality). 6.5% claimed Italian ancestry and 18.5% of residents were Catholics, the second largest religious denomination behind Judaism (no religious affiliation placed third, with 17.8%).
This diverse ethnic and religious mix means that a majority of the population (50.1%) have a language other than English as their mother tongue. Russian was actually the largest non-official language, spoken as the mother tongue of 10.6% of residents. Other main non-official languages (mother tongue) included Cantonese (4.4%), Persian/Farsi (4%) and Chinese (3.8%).
Thornhill is a very affluent, highly-educated and white-collar suburban riding. The median household income (2010) was $85,332, which likely places in the top 15-20 of all Canadian ridings. 62.5% of residents were in the top five income deciles, compared with 53.6% of residents: even more telling, the only income deciles overrepresented (against the provincial average) in Thornhill were the top three deciles: 44.9% of residents lived in the top 3 deciles (33.6% of Ontarians), including 19.4% in the top decile. No less than 41.3% of residents over 15 have a university degree at the bachelor level or above (a very high percentage, 16.6%, have a degree above the bachelor level), while low percentages have a HS diploma as their highest qualification (21.2%) or have no qualifications whatsoever (11.8%).
The largest industry in the riding (NAICS) were ‘professional, scientific and technical services’ (13.7%), followed by healthcare (10.5%), retail trade (10.4%) and manufacturing (9.1%). The main occupations, however, emphasize the white-collar nature even more: 21.1% are employed in business, finance and administration occupations; 19.3% (a very low number by Canadian standards) in sales and services; 12.8% had ‘occupations in education, law and social, community and government services’ and 12.7% were in management.
The suburban nature is highlighted by family and housing demographics (commuting information in the 2011 NHS was quite horrendous, but the average commute time was 30 minutes, against 20 minutes for all Ontario). There is a very high percentage of married individuals (58.1%), a low percentage of singles (27.9%) and a high percentage of households with children (46%). 87% of households are owned; a majority (55.3%) are single-detached houses, but there’s also a fairly significant number of new condo developments (about 27% of all households per the NHS in 2011) and some high-rise apartments (22.1%, largely along the main arteries). Thornhill is a riding which grew rapidly after the 1960s, as such, most houses (55.9%) were built between 1961 and 1990, and another 41.2% have been built since 1991. As a settled inner suburban area, growth has slowed down somewhat in the past decade, although the riding was still clearly overpopulated at the 2011 census (140,265) and did grow by +6.3% between 2006 and 2011.
The riding of Thornhill was created at the 1996 federal redistribution, from the division of the rapidly growing old suburban ridings of Markham—Whitchurch—Stouffville and York North. The provincial electoral district was created in 1999 on the lines of the federal seat. The seat has seen very closely fought between PCs and Liberals in the last four provincial election, but at the federal level, it witnessed a fairly sudden and dramatic swing from Liberals to Conservatives. The federal riding of Thornhill was solidly Liberal until 2008: the Liberals won 59% in 1997, 65% in 2000, 55% in 2004 and 53% in 2006. Even in 2006 – Harper’s first victory – the Liberals held Thornhill with a breezy 19% majority over the Tories. In 2008, however, the Conservatives, represented by British-born journalist Peter Kent (the former Minister of the Environment from 2011 to 2013), picked up the seat from incumbent Liberal (Jewish) MP Susan Kadis, with a 9.6% majority for the Tories. The Tory vote increased from 33.7% to 49% in the space of two years, while the Liberal vote fell from 53% to 39% in the same period. In 2011, Kent was reelected for a second term in a landslide, with 61% of the vote and a 37.7% majority over the Grits.
Provincially, the PCs won the seat in 1999, when it was first disputed, with a very thin majority on the Liberals (48.2% vs 47.4%), and while they lost it to the Liberals in the 2003 Grit landslide, it was by a narrow margin: 46.9% for the Liberals’ Mario Racco against 45.2% for the PC MPP Tina Molinari. The seat drew attention in the 2007 provincial election, when it was gained, countercyclically, by the PCs (who lost by a wide margin provincially). PC candidate Peter Shurman (who is Jewish) won 45.9% against 42.3% for the Liberals. In 2011, Shurman won reelection with 46.9% against 40.7% for the Liberals. Unlike the federal Grits, the provincial Liberals put up a fight in 2011: their candidate was Bernie Farber, the former president of the Canadian Jewish Congress.
The NDP has been very weak in Thornhill (even if the Jewish Canadian community, in its working-class days, strongly supported the CCF/NDP or Communists). In the 2011 provincial election, the NDP won 9%, a result which is actually at the upper end of recent NDP showings. In the federal election, the NDP won 12%.
The sudden shift from Liberals to Conservatives has everything to do with the changing political allegiances of the Canadian Jewish community: an hitherto reliably Liberal demographic which has become a solidly Conservative demographic since 2008 (the shift is very perceptible in seats in Toronto and Montreal). Federally, the shift is often assigned to the Harper Conservatives’ strongly pro-Israeli diplomatic stances (while some Liberals have taken more pro-Palestinian positions), which resonate very well with Canadian Jews. Provincially, it is often chalked down to the issue of private/denominational schools: in 2003, the PCs supported a tax credit for parents to send their children to private/denominational schools, and it allowed the PC vote to hold up very well in Thornhill. In 2007, PC leader John Tory famously – and disastrously – proposed to extend public funding to all faith-based schools (the Ontario provincial government funds Catholic schools); while that played disastrously for the PCs in the province, it may explain why the PCs gained Thornhill – for some Jewish parents, especially in the Orthodox Jewish community, access to Jewish schools is a major issue.
At the same time, however, it may also have something to do with a wider shift: many affluent white-collar suburban voters have shifted, fairly dramatically in the long term, from Liberal to Conservatives. Jewish Canadians tend to be like many Canadian suburbanites: socially liberal, but fiscally conservative. Jewish voters, much like those south of the border, are very much allergic to (Christian) religious conservatism, social conservatism or more populist conservative rhetoric. The Canadian Alliance and Reform Party, associated with religious and populist conservatism, did very poorly with Jewish voters (although from poll-by-poll results, it appears the Alliance did fairly well with Orthodox Jews in Thornhill in 2000, presumably helped by a Jewish candidate). Similarly, in the 2011 provincial election, the PCs lost ground (compared to 2007) with more secular Jewish voters in urban Toronto (St. Paul’s and Eglinton-Lawrence), a reaction to Hudak’s populist and right-wing campaign which repelled affluent, urban moderates.
The map of the 2011 provincial election portrays the riding’s electoral geography well. The PCs were very strong – over 70% of the vote in a handful of polls – in the heavily Jewish areas along Bathurst Street (Toronto’s main ‘Jewish road’ – see a map here) in the Thornhill neighborhood. There were smaller outcrops of PC support in the eastern (Markham) end of the riding, primarily in mixed-Jewish neighborhoods. On the other hand, the Liberals were strongest in non-Jewish areas: areas west of Dufferin Street (more Italian) or between Yonge Street and Bayview Avenue (less Jewish, more Chinese and Iranian). The 2007 election is much the same: the PCs clearly owed their victory to very strong numbers with Jewish voters (again, with numbers over 60-70% in the most Jewish areas) while the Grits won non-Jewish voters. From 2007 to 2011, it appears as if the PC vote in the Jewish areas stagnated while improving in then non-Jewish areas.
The 2011 federal election is a Tory sweep, with many heavily Jewish polls giving over 80% of the vote to the Conservatives. The 2008 map is very similar to the provincial maps from 2007 or 2011, while the 2006 and 2004 maps – Liberal landslides – show a Tory enclave in Thornhill, presumably an Orthodox Jewish area, with the Liberals sweeping the rest (including many Jewish areas).
The PCs nominated optometrist Gila Martow, who ran and lost for Vaughan city council in 2010. On her website, Martow’s biographical blurb includes a well-placed picture of her with Harper and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, both of whom are held in high esteem by the Canadian Jewish community. The Liberal candidate was Sandra Yeung Racco, a Vaughan city councillor and the wife of former Liberal MPP Mario Racco (2003-2007). The NDP’s sacrificial lamb was Cindy Hackelberg, the 2011 candidate.
Gila Martow (PC) 47.96% (+1.25%)
Sandra Yeung Racco (Liberal) 41.50% (+0.58%)
Cindy Hackelberg (NDP) 6.79% (-2.18%)
Teresa Pun (Green) 1.44% (-0.25%)
Gene Balfour (Libertarian) 1.06% (-0.33%)
Erin Goodwin (Freedom) 0.56% (+0.23%)
Kevin Clarke (PPP) 0.52% (+0.52%)
John Turmel (Pauper) 0.18% (+0.18%)
The PCs narrowly held Thornhill, with a margin similar to the 2011 election. As early results trickled in, the Liberals took a narrow lead over the PCs, but as it turned out it was likely the Grit-leaning non-Jewish polls reporting first. Later on, the PCs regained the lead and never gave it back. A Tory defeat in Thornhill (at the hands of the governing Liberals) would have been a serious, potentially fatal, blow to Hudak’s leadership; a victory, even if fairly narrow, allows him to breath a sigh of relief. The Liberals’ decent showing, in sharp contrast to their results in Niagara Falls, shows that the Grits are still a force to be reckoned with in the 416 (city of Toronto) and GTA/905 suburbs. The NDP’s poor result is not surprising if you take into account the propensity for Canadian by-elections to turn into two-party contests in a majority of cases, squeezing out any third party lacking a base and organization in the riding.
Overall, the main winner of these two by-elections was the NDP, which gained Niagara Falls. It was not as extraordinary a victory as Kitchener-Waterloo (2012) or London West/Windsor-Tecumseh (2013), which may or may not indicate that some of the NDP’s momentum has tapered off since then. Yet, all this is still very good news for the NDP and Andrea Horwath. Although Horwath has taken hits from both the Liberals and PCs, and has been the target of PC criticism for ‘propping up’ the Liberal government since 2011, she remains the most popular political leader in the province and for the first time in a long time, the NDP has a good chance of actually winning the next election. The NDP has been riding high in the polls in Southwestern Ontario (home to Kitchener, London and Windsor although not Niagara Falls) and their results in by-elections since 2012 indicate that the NDP are the only threat to the PCs outside of Ottawa and Toronto, even in Liberal-held ridings.
It remains to be seen, of course, if the NDP could repeat the remarkable results of the by-elections since 2012 in a general election. In a province-wide contest, the NDP would focus less heavily on specific ridings (like in by-elections), leaving some local candidates who might receive disproportionate backing from HQs in a by-election to fend for themselves. But the by-elections since 2012 have shown that the NDP are capable of regaining Dipper heartlands (Windsor-Tecumseh) and challenging the Liberals and PCs in seats where the NDP hasn’t usually been a factor in past provincial or federal elections (Kitchener, London, Niagara…): these are exactly the kind of ridings which the NDP need to win in a provincial election if they want to win government.
The NDP’s raw vote across both ridings was very, very close to the 2011 results. But the details show two very different dynamics at work: in Thornhill, a seat which will go NDP only when hell freezes over, the NDP lost 2,128 votes from their 2011 result. In Niagara Falls, where Wayne Gates won, the NDP increased their raw vote total by 2,222 – despite turnout falling by 9,960 votes since 2011. This indicates that the NDP was able to directly win voters who had backed the Grits or Tories in the last election.
The PCs had mixed results, on the whole. There is disagreement as to whether they won (by not losing any riding and by winning the most votes across the two ridings) or if they lost (by failing to regain low-hanging fruit like Niagara Falls and making very limited gains overall), I’d personally lean towards the latter. Holding Thornhill, where the PCs faced a rather serious threat from the Liberals (while still being favoured), is a good result for them insofar as it allows the PCs to breath a sigh of relief. But defeat in Niagara Falls is undeniably bad news for the PCs, which adds on to their defeats in Kitchener-Waterloo, London West and Ottawa South. Niagara Falls was low-hanging fruit for the PCs, who should have won the seat without too much trouble given their lead in province-wide polls, the swings against the Liberals and the federal Conservatives’ success in that seat in federal elections since 2004. It is also, like London West, the kind of riding which Hudak’s PCs need to win in the next election if they are to form government. Hudak, who has a remarkable inability for introspection, preferred to trumpet the meaningless statistic of ‘winning the most votes in the two ridings together’ and blame the Niagara Falls result on ‘unions’ (Hudak’s favourite boogeyman) turning out for the NDP.
The PCs saw their raw vote fall significantly in both ridings: across both, they lost over 10,300 votes. Their gains, in percentage terms, in both ridings were purely by virtue of retaining a good share of their 2011 votes than by any gains directly at another party’s expense. In a general election, the PCs may still win by just getting their 2011 voters again and little else, but they’ll most likely need to expand their base a bit by drawing voters who had backed the Liberals (or, less likely, the NDP) in 2011.
The clear loser were the Liberals – again. They lost yet another seat, after losing three seats in last summer’s five by-elections. What is especially cause for concern for the Liberals is that the disaster in Niagara Falls adds on to the disasters in Kitchener, London and Windsor in the last two years. All this seems to mean that the Liberals are quickly turning irrelevant in ridings outside of Toronto and Ottawa (in the 2013 by-elections, the Liberals held their ground – placing first or second – in the three ridings in Ottawa or Toronto; the Liberals still placed a decent second in the GTA riding of Thornhill). In a general election, the Liberals may very well face a bloodbath outside Ottawa and the 416/905: ridings outside those regions are shaping up, if by-elections are anything to go by, into PC-NDP battles with the Liberals not a factor. Some commentators have said that the Liberals could still be serious contenders for a fourth term in office because of their hold on ‘fortress Toronto’. I don’t disagree with the idea that the Liberals could still be contenders for reelection in the next general election, but I have serious doubts on the solidity of ‘fortress Toronto’. A lot of commentators rehashing that line seem to be assuming that the Liberals face no threat from either the PCs or NDP in the 416 ridings, or that they remain very competitive with the PCs in 905 suburban ridings where the NDP is weak. The latter is probably true; the Liberals will remain the main competition to the PCs in places like Vaughan, Markham, Oakville, Richmond Hill, Aurora and so forth. However, very little proves that Toronto is the impregnable Liberal ‘fortress’ some people present it as. In the 2013 by-elections, the PCs actually gained a seat from the Liberals in Toronto (Etobicoke-Lakeshore) and the Liberals held Scarborough-Guildwood by a narrow margin against serious PC and NDP threats. The NDP has a large potential base in Toronto; it did very poorly in Toronto in the 2011 provincial election, but nothing says that the next election will be just as disappointing for them. The PCs also have the potential to win seats inside Toronto. I would posit, therefore, that the Liberals aren’t particularly safe(r) in Toronto as a whole; in a general election, anything could happen.
It is unclear what impact these results have in the short term, especially as it relates to the likelihood of an early election in the spring. The NDP comes out with a big boost from these by-elections and it might be tempted to finally pull the plug on the Liberals, but from the early rhetoric from Horwath, she doesn’t seem particularly ‘trigger-happy’ and she prefers to present herself as a ‘responsible leader’ who doesn’t talk incessantly about elections. From past experience, Horwath does seem rather reluctant to take the responsibility for provoking an early election. Meanwhile, the Liberals do seem less interested than before in having an early election. In a case of acute spinning, the Liberals said that “a small percentage of people vote in by-elections” and affirm that “a general election will be a different story”. If the Liberals are reading the tea leaves, they might opt to delay an increasingly inevitable defeat at the polls by trying to stay in power for as long as possible. If Wynne was fairly bullish on election night with talk of a general election, other Liberals were on the defensive the next day and downplaying talks of an election (and rumours that the Liberals might engineer their own defeat on the budget).
On the other hand, it is worth noting that the Liberal spin about a general election being a different story is somewhat correct. By-elections are sometimes good predictors, but at best imperfect because of low turnout and the tendency for anti-incumbent votes against the government. It is interesting that the by-election results since 2013 haven’t been lining up with province-wide polling, in which the Liberals remain a fairly strong second not too far behind the PCs. Are the provincial polls all wrong? Are the by-elections showing an exaggerated swing against the Liberals because the Liberals’ supporters are not showing up? A general election will have different and unpredictable dynamics: the Liberals may turn out to be good campaigners who will find what it takes to seriously challenge Hudak and Horwath; but the Liberals may also collapse, if momentum builds around the NDP and leads to Liberal supporters abandoning the Grits for the NDP or PCs (a repeat of what happened federally in May 2011). As things stand, however, the Liberals are in a very difficult position.