It’s been a very interesting night, actually, watching the by-election returns come in. If nothing else, tonight’s returns show just how isolated Toronto has become from the rest of the country — and, with it, the ideas of the Toronto élites in the various parties.
Toronto Centre and Willowdale were never, of course, in doubt: a political earthquake of extreme proportions would have been required to shake these loose from not only the grip of the laurels of incumbency being passed on to two new candidates (both of whom had received great quantities of news coverage not that long ago as the Liberal leadership campaign carried on). Indeed, both have (as of the 20:39 PT reading from the Elections Canada website) achieved a 59% true majority from the electors — slightly less than one in four — who turned out today. This puts two more possible alternatives to Dion on the Liberal benches for all to see, each and every day in Question Period: I do wonder why my mind’s eye keeps seeing Gaius Julius surrounded by his friends. Probably clapping as the knife goes in, too.
Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River, where Stéphane Dion’s hand-picked candidate, Joan Beatty, was expected to have a tough go of it tonight, but the battle was expected to be close for all of that. Nevertheless, this riding voted consistently, from poll to poll, to elect the Conservative, Rob Clarke. It would, in point of fact, have taken just about every NDP vote to have gone to the Liberal (I do recall more than one news article and blog post in the past few days who thought it would be a Liberal-NDP battle here!) to close the gap. (It may well be that that outcome does eventually come about — a Liberal & NDP merger, not unlike the Canadian Alliance & Progressive Conservative merger that gave us today’s Conservatives. Goodness knows there are enough former New Democrats already on the Liberal benches.)
“DMCR”, as one Maclean’s blogger put it, has another distinction: the highest turnout of the four by-elections. Still only 25%, but solidly so, not under the mark as in the Toronto ridings — or in Vancouver.
Which brings me to Vancouver Quadra, still a battleground at the time of writing (there are still 64 of the 237 polls to report, and although the Liberal Joyce Murray has been ahead often the lead has see-sawed). I am expecting (but not personally happy about) Murray to win it. However, Stephen Owen’s +20% legacy has been dissolved. The next go around in this riding should be more interesting, indeed. The Greens are coming out of Quadra with 15% as well — they and the NDP have traded the also-ran laurels all night long — and I suspect this represents the future general election in BC, at least along the coast: a four way battle.
If there is a big loser tonight it is Jack Layton and the NDP. Across three of the four ridings (Toronto Centre, Desenthé-Missinippi-Churchill River and Vancouver Quadra) the party is in the 13-17% range, not enough to lead to more seats. True, all four of these ridings were Liberal pre-tonight, but if the NDP’s message — with its anti-war core and NDP opposition exercised in the Commons (no abstentions amongst the abstentious, so to speak) can’t make headway in a by-election, where both the prior incumbents and the current government could be sent a message, then they are unlikely to do so in a general campaign. The party has come to be seen as mostly “against”; it is going to need to be known as being “for” a coherent, integrated programme, or that merger with the Liberals is going to looking more and more appropriate as time goes on.
Our Opposition Leader, Stéphane Dion, also has failed to reinforce his position tonight, and may in fact have weakened it substantially. Four-for-four was — as with those who run websites and data centres — the price of admission. There will be those who link DMCR to Outremont and ask what other losses wait in the wings. The tussle amongst sitting MPs over whether to try and trigger an election or continue to avoid losing by winning a non-confidence measure will continue. No doubt the morrow will bring new analysis — perhaps first and foremost from the recently-installed President of the Central Region of the Liberal Party of Canada (Ontario) — but things are at a point with Dion where his supporters end up being countered not only by those who do not support the Liberal Party, but by those who do (and fear for it). In other words, the storm of sound and fury, signifying little to nothing, we have lived through for weeks will continue.
On the other hand, the Greens can see decent results in Toronto Centre (where they came second) and in Vancouver Quadra (where Dan Grice put on a solid showing). Both these results earn the party funding support for the next battle, having 13-15% of the total vote: this puts them on a part with the NDP. (The other two ridings showed a more standard breakdown of support.)
Finally, the Conservatives. Not only does Stephen Harper come out of tonight with a new MP on the Government benches, but it is clear that none of the attempts to plaster his party with goo — Schreiber, Cadman, etc. — have done any real damage. Neither have any of the decried “self-inflicted wounds”: income trusts, denial of the RESP tax change, etc. Whatever reservations may keep Harper from achieving a majority, he is also not losing ground. This is particularly important when we remember that by-elections give voters a safe place to “spank the government”. We come out of tonight with a government unspanked. Food for thought should the government fall in the near future.
The Anomaly That is Toronto
I close this piece by returning momentarily to the city of my birth, Toronto. There should now be little question but that Toronto has a political culture that is atypical. It was, as Ontarians well know, Toronto that has thrown up the “Progressive” end of Progressive Conservativism, both provincially and federally. Yes, there are other places that live and breathe a Liberal-NDP axis: Ottawa, West Island Montréal, the City of Vancouver. Toronto, however, exemplifies this. Couple that with the fact that many of the most influential Liberal bloggers are either transplants to Toronto, native Torontonians, or located just outside it in Southern Ontario, and that most of the English-language main stream media in the country is located there, and the disproportionate influence of the Toronto political calculus on national affairs starts to be seen.
But that influence wanes the closer the Liberal Party as elected comes to be the Toronto & District party. Tonight’s results move the Liberals a little closer to that: winning Vancouver Quadra, a seat where, from 1988 to 2006 inclusive, a box painted red with an “L” on it could have been elected with a 10%+ margin (and actual candidates did significantly better), by the less than 4% Joyce Murray is tracking to, suggests that urban Vancouver may be more susceptible to new types of races (against the Conservatives here; against the NDP elsewhere; every riding facing a growing Green challenge). The future, in other words, is changing: eventually, Toronto — even with its gerrymandered riding boundaries that split opposing party strengths to allow Liberals to sneak through (for Toronto is not monolithic) — will come to change, too.
For Toronto worships at the twin troughs of power and money, and eventually goes where these can be found. When they do, the Liberals as we know them are toast.
So here’s the real question from tonight: can the NDP (or the Greens) figure out how to compete successfully enough to tip the balance and make the residual Liberals the supplicants, when the time comes?
On this question the nation’s political future rests.
Update @ 21.41 PT: Vancouver Quadra takes the laurels for largest turnout and the gap between the Liberal Murray and the Conservative Meredith is closing. Nothing like a little “end of the night” (there are only 34 polls still to report) excitement, although I’m not expecting an upset here — just an extremely close result.