OTTAWA – Upstart Conservative and New Democrat candidates gave their heavily favoured Liberal rivals a bit of a scare Monday in a pair of byelections in Ontario where some of Justin Trudeau’s policies and promises played a central role.
In the Toronto-area riding of Markham-Thornhill, Liberal candidate and former PMO staffer Mary Ng defeated Ragavan Paranchothy by a margin of nearly 2,500 votes after a stronger than expected early showing by her Conservative rival.
A robust performance in the riding, long a Liberal stronghold held by ex-cabinet minister John McCallum, was critical for the Liberals, given the importance of holding Toronto if they want to form government in 2019.
It was also important for Ng, who is currently on a leave of absence from her job in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office and seen by some as a strong candidate for cabinet.
“The Liberal future is in Ontario,” said political analyst Tim Powers, vice-president of Summa Strategies. “If the Liberal vote goes down in Markham-Thornhill, then they will want to spend a lot of time diagnosing what went wrong.”
That did indeed appear to be the case: with all polls reporting, Ng had claimed just 51.3 per cent of the vote, compared with 55.72 per cent in 2015. The Tory share of the vote was nearly seven per cent higher.
None of that seemed to dampen Ng’s spirits late Monday as she credited the victory to her team of volunteers, who “knocked on a lot of doors, talked to thousands of people, and we earned their vote.”
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Conservative insiders had said the local campaign strategy involved talking about the Trudeau government’s forthcoming plan to legalize marijuana, but Ng said it “wasn’t an issue I heard at the door.”
Ng, whose previous experience includes roles at the Ontario legislature and in the president’s office at Ryerson University, was also circumspect Monday about her chances of ending up in cabinet.
“Today is Day 1,” she said. “My job is to represent the people of Markham-Thornhill. And I’m going to work very, very hard to be their strongest voice and their strongest advocate. That’s my job today.”
In Ottawa-Vanier, where the New Democrats campaigned aggressively against the Liberals for breaking a promise to abandon the oft-maligned first-past-the-post electoral system, the NDP’s Emilie Taman gathered 28.7 per cent of the vote.
It was nowhere near enough to challenge Liberal candidate Mona Fortier, however, who had 51.2 per cent of the vote and finished 6,667 votes ahead of Taman.
“I’m feeling really good. We had a great showing. I’m proud of what we achieved,” Taman said in an interview afterward.
“The government is going to take notice that the people of Ottawa-Vanier have their concerns…. I think it was an overall disappointment that I was hearing from people, that they didn’t really get the government they thought they were getting.”
Liberal party spokesman Braeden Caley was having none of it Monday, calling the outcome a “phenomenal result,” also noting that the government would be getting three new female MPs.
“They’re going to be tireless champions for their communities in Parliament,” he said.
Add in Conservative Stephanie Kusie, who cruised to victory in Calgary Midnapore, and that makes four more women on their way to Parliament Hill, said the advocacy group Equal Voice, which is committed to electing more female MPs.
That brings to 92 the total number of women in the House of Commons – 27 per cent of the available seats, up from 26 per cent, said spokesperson Catherine Fortin LeFaivre.
“We are hopeful that tonight’s results will inspire even more women to seriously consider running for political office – Canada needs them.”
Greg MacEachern, a former Liberal strategist now at lobby firm Environics Communications, said significant inroads in Ottawa-Vanier for the NDP suggest a surprising degree of anger over the abandonment of electoral reform.
“Electoral reform came up a lot in the course of the campaign – a lot,” said the NDP’s Taman “Even people for whom it was not their No. 1 priority were really, really disappointed in the way the prime minister went about breaking the promise.”
Three other byelections took place Monday, and their results were hardly a surprise.
In the Montreal riding of Saint-Laurent, Liberal candidate Emmanuella Lambropoulos won 59.1 per cent of the vote, compared with Conservative rival Jimmy Yu, a distant second at just 19.5 per cent.
Lambropoulos, a 26-year-old high school teacher, stunned many when she won the Liberal nomination contest in Saint-Laurent, defeating former Quebec cabinet minister Yolande James.
“I’m sure it will hit me a little later,” she said after her victory speech late Monday.
The Alberta ridings of Calgary Heritage and Calgary Midnapore, formerly held by Stephen Harper and Jason Kenney, respectively, were no contest as the Tories cleaned house.
Bob Benzen, who claimed 71.5 per cent of the vote in Calgary Heritage, well clear of the Liberals’ Scott Forsyth at 21.7 per cent, portrayed his victory as a protest against Trudeau’s environmental policies.
“We wanted to send our prime minister, Mr. Trudeau, a message and I think we did,” Benzen said in his victory speech. “We are telling him we don’t want this job-killing carbon tax.”
Kusie took a similar tone as she cruised to an easy win in Calgary Midnapore, taking 77.2 per cent of the vote, leaving her closest rival Liberal candidate Haley Brown at 17 per cent.
“The Liberal party policies, Justin’s policies, are not working here in Calgary Midnapore,” she said. “The electorate has shown that … they are not satisfied with the job the Liberal party is doing.”
With files from Giuseppe Valiante in Montreal and Bill Graveland in Calgary