Canada votes! Well, parts of it

Paul Wells on by-elections, expectations and ballot-box mojo

Is it Monday yet? Please, for the love of God, can it be Tuesday instead? Then we’d know who won the by-elections in Brandon-Souris, Provencher, Bourassa and Toronto-Centre, and we could maybe skip one last day of everybody in every party talking smack about everyone else. It’s been exhausting, guys.

The most fun, if by “fun” you mean “things that make you want to stick a fork in your eyes,” has been had in Toronto Centre, which became a longstanding Liberal fortress after more than a decade of High Red Toryism under, mostly, David Crombie in the ’80s. There, the Liberals are running a journalist, Chrystia Freeland, to replace Bob Rae. The NDP is running a journalist, Linda McQuaig. The narcissism of small differences between the two parties has been awesome to watch. On the whole, Freeland has not managed to dispel the feeling that she talks about income disparity without having a super-firm grasp on its Canadian causes or solutions. McQuaig has not skated seriously enough offside the determinedly moderate-ish stances of Today’s Tom Mulcair New Democrats to cause an embarrassing rift in the party. (“But she shook Chavez’s hand!” shouts Random Liberal A. “She nationalized the means of production and smashed the kulaks!” shouts another. Pipe down, I say.) The upshot is that Freeland may yet become the first Liberal to lose Toronto Centre in 20 years. Personally I doubt it. Anyway, fun race.

In Provencher, it’d take a lot for the Conservative to lose, probably even more than the thing where he wondered whether a gay high-school kid had staged his own bullying. It’d take more than that to lose Vic Toews’s riding. Probably.

In Brandon-Souris, it’s all too weird for words. The Conservative nomination fight was a comedy of errors, the Liberal wears a bowler hat and has other eccentricities, and the iconography of the Liberal campaign has probably led a good two-thirds of the electorate to assume Justin Trudeau is the party’s candidate. Much of the Conservative campaign has focussed on pot. A Liberal victory here, where the Liberals scored so badly in 2011 that the party’s candidate actually owed the riding votes, would be a surprise. Every other party’s body language suggests they fear a Liberal victory.

Bourassa was Denis Coderre’s old Montreal federal riding. He’s the mayor of Montreal now, has made a good start of things — I will be sure, and indeed almost comically eager, to let you know if that changes — and leaves behind a fair bit of goodwill in his wake. Here I’d be surprised if the Liberal, Emmanuel Dubourg, lost. If he does win, he can look forward to debating marijuana policy with his party leader.

And now the expectations game. If the Conservatives lost Provencher it would be a big problem. Losing Brandon-Souris, less so, but it will be noticed that the PM pushed as hard in that riding as he could. If the Liberals win three of four ridings, Justin Trudeau will have demonstrated some ballot-box mojo. If not, not. The NDP holds none of these ridings and will be pleased to win any.

By-elections are not terribly significant, but they’re not quite meaningless. Parties are able to ship disproportionate resources to the affected ridings. Party leaders practically move in; it really would have been nice of Tom Mulcair to let McQuaig talk in her own campaign-closing video. All of this distorts the result. But sometimes a by-election carries some broader symbolism. A third-place Canadian Alliance showing in Perth-Middlesex in 2003 marked the end of Stephen Harper’s attempts to make the Canadian Alliance thrive as a party independent of the Progressive Conservatives. In the current set of four cases, a Conservative loss in Brandon-Souris would suggest Harper’s turmoil in the headlines was translating into weakness in the kind of place that returned Merv Tweed for nearly a decade.

But let’s not borrow trouble. Best of luck to all in Monday night’s contests, and please, let this just be over.