OTTAWA – Justin Trudeau emerged the big winner from Monday’s four federal by-elections.
At first glance, the results simply preserved the status quo: the Conservatives held on to two longtime Tory bastions in Manitoba, while the Liberals retained two traditional Grit strongholds in Toronto and Montreal.
Beneath the surface, however, the byelections have roiled Canada’s political waters, suggesting the Senate expenses scandal has badly hurt the Tory government and that Trudeau’s Liberals are the ones who stand to benefit.
The Liberals increased their share of the vote in all four ridings — dramatically so in two Manitoba ridings where they were all but invisible in the 2011 election, coming within a whisker of an upset victory in Brandon-Souris.
In Toronto Centre and Montreal’s Bourassa riding, the Liberals emerged victorious in a battle with the NDP over which opposition party is the real government-in-waiting. Despite an aggressive challenge by the NDP, the Liberal vote share increased slightly in both ridings.
Trudeau said the by-election results show Canadians are fed up with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s scandal-plagued Conservative government and are looking to the Liberals, not the NDP, to replace it.
“Canadians grow weary of the deceit, the mistrust and the cover-ups of the Conservatives,” he told ecstatic Liberals at the campaign headquarters of Bourassa victor Emmanuel Dubourg.
They’re also discovering that Tom Mulcair is no Jack Layton, whose sunny optimism led the NDP to a stunning electoral breakthrough in 2011, Trudeau asserted.
“Make no mistake, the NDP is no longer the hopeful, optimistic party of Jack Layton. It is the negative, divisive party of Thomas Mulcair.”
Stealing a line from the late Layton’s famous death-bed letter to Canadians, Trudeau added: “It is the Liberal party tonight that proved hope is stronger than fear.”
By contrast to the Liberals’ momentum, Conservative support nosedived in all four ridings — likely the result of the Senate scandal that has engulfed Harper’s government for almost a year.
Even in Provencher, which Conservative Ted Falk won with a comfortable 58 per cent of the vote, the Tory share was down about 12 percentage points from 2011. The Liberal share, at 30 per cent, was up 23 points.
In Brandon-Souris, a riding that has voted Conservative in all but one election over the last 60 years, Tory Larry Maguire barely eked out a victory over Liberal Rolf Dinsdale. He captured about 44 per cent of the vote — a 20-point drop from 2011.
Dinsdale, who was only two points behind Maguire to increase the Liberal vote share by a stunning 38 points, said the fact the Liberals came so close to victory was a warning to the Conservative government.
“This didn’t turn out the way we wanted, but it turned out better than anyone thought it would, not least of all, Mr. Harper,” Dinsdale told a subdued room.
“(It’s) a shot across the bow, we’ll get you next time.”
Maguire said the Senate scandal “certainly played a role in this campaign.”
The Tory vote almost disappeared entirely in Bourassa, where the party captured less than five per cent of the vote, and in Toronto Centre, where it scored less than 10 per cent.
For Mulcair, the results were disappointing. Despite widespread praise for his prosecutorial grilling of Harper over the Senate scandal, his party increased its share of the vote only in Toronto Centre and not by enough to steal the riding from the Liberals.
Author and journalist Linda McQuaig took about 36 per cent of the vote for the NDP, up six points from 2011 but still 13 points behind Trudeau’s hand-picked star, Chrystia Freeland.
“We always knew that this was a Liberal stronghold and that it would be an uphill battle and it was,” said McQuaig.
Still, she argued it’s significant that the NDP did better in Toronto Centre this time than it did in 2011 when Layton’s so-called “orange crush” vaulted the NDP into official Opposition status for the first time in history.
Freeland had a different take.
“My message for Stephen Harper is: watch out, we’re on the rise, our party’s united,” she said. “Canadians want an alternative to the Conservatives and they have found that alternative in the Liberal party.”
The NDP share of the vote declined slightly in Bourassa, despite an aggressive campaign by a star candidate, lawyer and one-time pop singer Stephane Moraille. She wound up with about 32 per cent of the vote, compared to Dubourg’s 48 per cent.
In the two Manitoba ridings, the NDP vote share plunged to less than 10 per cent. The party went from a respectable second in 2011 in both ridings to a distant third.
The byelections are the first concrete measure of the Senate expenses scandal’s impact on Stephen Harper’s government, the depth of Trudeau’s popular appeal and the durability of the NDP’s 2011 electoral breakthrough.