08.04.2013 05:20 AM

In Sunday’s Sun: by-elections don’t matter, except when they do

“Hell,” W.C. Fields once said, “I never vote for anybody. I always vote against.”

Fields, the legendary comedian and misanthropist, wasn’t talking about Canadian byelections, but he may as well have been. His line neatly summarizes how most folks approach byelections in Canada — or “special elections,” as they call them down south.

Joe and Jane Frontporch, in their wisdom, do not regard byelections (or even elections) as in any way special. Declining voting rates testify to this sad fact. More and more, folks don’t show up to vote — and those who do, more often than not, have an axe or two to grind.

That’s why ideologues — on both the outer reaches of the left and the right — tend to do better in byelections. If Joe and Jane Frontporch are simply showing up to oppose something, or because they’re in an elevated state of irritation, then it is only logical that governments so often get their keesters kicked in byelections.

Kathleen Wynne knows this. Last Thursday, Wynne’s Liberals were utterly crushed in ridings that had been Grit strongholds for a generation. In byelections in places like Windsor-Tecumseh and London West, for instance — previously held by long-serving ministers of finance and justice, respectively — the ruling party actually came third, after the New Democrats and the Conservatives. (Meanwhile, the Grits won big in Ottawa South — but only because the riding’s departed MPP, Dalton McGuinty, isn’t nearly as disliked as some would have us believe.)

Now, the Grits’ losses will raise questions about the suitability of Wynne’s handpicked candidates in Windsor and London, and the strategies of her strategists — as they should.

But, on balance, the five Ontario byelections mostly provided grumpy voters with an opportunity to beat the Ontario Liberals like a pinata. And, in so doing, possibly set the stage for another Liberal win in the fall of 2013 or the spring of 2014.

That may sound far-fetched, but Stephen Harper and Christy Clark wouldn’t think so. They know byelections plant seeds out of which general election victories are often grown. They’re a release valve.

Harper’s got byelections coming up in Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba — to replace Liberals Denis Coderre and Bob Rae, and Conservative Vic Toews, respectively. He doesn’t stand a chance in the first two, and in Toews’ old seat, Provencher — which has gone back and forth between Grits and Tories since Confederation — I wager a Conservative win won’t be as easy as it once was. But I’ll also bet that Harper isn’t losing any sleep over it. That’s because Harper, like all old pros, knows that byelections are a constitutionally mandated opportunity for people to vent their spleens, but not much else. The day after his party was humiliated by the Liberals in a Labrador byelection, Harper shrugged and went back to work.

Before that, in the 40th Parliament, Harper didn’t win in byelections in places like Winnipeg North or Hochelaga or New Westminster-Coquitlam, either. But he still went on to achieve a majority in the general election that came shortly afterwards, didn’t he? Yes, he did.

Byelections are a big deal to the chattering classes. The media (because they are easily bored) and the political classes (because they are emotionally disturbed) go on and on and on about the cosmic significance of byelections. But there isn’t any, really. Few folks show up to participate in ’em, and nobody remembers ’em a week later.

Still disbelieving? Take B.C. as an example, then. Between 2001 and now, the B.C. Liberals lost every single byelection to the NDP — with the exception of one candidate. Who? If you guessed Christy Clark, give yourself a gold star. Clark defied the byelection conventional wisdom not once, but twice. (The NDP should have pondered the general election implications of that, but clearly didn’t.)

Byelections? They’re a lot of fun to write about, and prognosticate about, but in the grand scheme of things they don’t amount to a hill of beans.

If W.C. was still around, you could ask him — they’re just an opportunity to vote against.

Not for.


  1. Ronald O'Dowd says:


    How about this for a polling question:

    “In your experience as a voter, is there a political party in Ontario that does not in any way reflect your personal values or the path you would like to see the province on going forward?”

    The party that polls best on this question more than likely gets creamed in the election.

  2. SharonS says:

    Let’s look at the overall GOTV turnout numbers to see if they reveal anything significant:

    PC — 54,638 (36.9%)
    Lib — 47,663 (32.2%)
    NDP — 45,941 (30.9%)
    Total – 148,242

    The NDP and Libs registered large turnouts in 2 ridings each, while the PCs had large turnouts in 3 ridings.

    Based on PR voting the PCs won which may indicate a future trend rather than a fad vote. Hudak is certainly not a faddish leader!

    The next general election will confirm if we will have a Blue Wave, an Orange Wave, or a Red Tide in discontented Ontario.

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