11.17.2014 03:47 PM

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

Everyone knows that (a) election outcomes are notoriously difficult to predict, these days, and that (b) by-election outcomes don’t mean much, if anything.

However, those caveats aside, let’s have some fun and (a) recklessly predict some election outcomes and (b) rashly suggest that yesterday’s Whitby-Oshawa by-election – and the one in Yellowhead – portend big, big changes.

The one in Whitby-Oshawa by-election, for starters. Whoever actually won the thing – and, at press time, that crucial bit of information remained stubbornly elusive – one thing is for certain: the Conservatives and the New Democrats lost it.

Whitby-Oshawa, you see, was the riding held for many years by former Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. Provincially, the riding is held by Flaherty’s widow, Christine Elliott.

Flaherty died suddenly in April. At the time, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said it was a “terrible shock,” and it was. At the time, nobody could conceive, seven months hence, that the Conservatives would be contemplating actually losing the Flaherty stronghold.

But, at press time Monday night, they were. For Conservatives, Whitby-Oshawa had become a nightmare.

Consider the numbers. In 2006, Flaherty beat the much-liked Liberal incumbent handily, 44 to 39 per cent. In 2008, Flaherty improved his standing, pulling in double the vote of the Liberal challenger – 50 to 25 per cent. And, in 2011, he did even better – stealing 58 per cent of the popular vote in the riding, while his nearest challenger cobbled together only 22 per cent.

Oh, and his nearest challenger wasn’t a Liberal. It was a New Democrat. The Liberals finished third that year, capturing only 14 per cent of the votes. Ouch.

What a difference three years and a new leader make! On the eve of the by-election, public opinion surveys were showing a double-digit plummet in the Harper Conservatives’ popularity in Ontario. One poll, conducted six days before the by-election, actually placed the Liberal and Conservative candidates in Whitby-Oshawa in a dead heat – and the New Democrat, who came second in 2011, in a distant third place.

The fact that this could be happening in Jim Flaherty’s redoubt was extraordinary. The fact that the Conservative candidate had been Whitby’s two-term mayor – and the fact that Liberal challenger was a newcomer to politics – made it more so.

Whatever happened last night, then, the Liberals won Whitby-Oshawa. Despite the Flaherty family’s hold on the riding – despite the relative experience of the candidates – the Conservatives and the New Democrats have some soul-searching to do.

Out in Yellowhead, Alberta, the results aren’t likely to be as dramatic. But for the Conservatives and the New Democrats, there is more evidence that the Trudeau phenomenon has national implications.

Yellowhead, a vast riding located West of Edmonton, has been conservative – or Conservative – since it was created in 1979. Joe Clark, the Progressive Conservative leader, held it without interruption from 1979 to 1993. Cliff Breitkreuz then represented the area for three successive elections, as a Reform or Alliance candidate. Since 2000, Rob Merrifield has made Yellowhead his kingdom – pulling in an astonishing 77 per cent of the vote in 2011. The Liberals were reduced to two per cent, and a distant fourth place, behind the New Democrats and Greens.

This time around, as in Ontario, Team Harper have experienced a double-digit plummet in popularity in their Alberta heartland. In Yellowhead, some small-sample polling has seen Merrifield’s Tory successor slide significantly – and the Grit challenger add more than 23 points to the party’s 2011 showing. The NDP, meanwhile, was far back in the pack, in third place.

Make no mistake: for the Liberals to do so well in Yellowhead – and for the Conservatives and the New Democrats to do so poorly in Jim Flaherty’s Whitby-Oshawa – is simply amazing.

The seat standings may not have changed, last night.

But Canadian politics did.


  1. James Smith says:

    Wasn’t this riding represented by Mr Broadbent for about half a century before the Grits took the riding?

  2. Steven says:

    If indeed the NDP is in a distant third position, it will be interesting and maddening if the NDP gets enough votes to deny the Liberals a seat.

    It is fairly certain that the HarperCons are counting on it and Jenni Byrne’s recent visit has CPC Black Ops written all over it.

    I wouldn’t put it past the HarperCons to help get out the NDP vote.

    • davie says:

      Seems to me that Progressive Conservatives in Manitoba were very successful a few provincial election sago doing this. I think they set up a different party, or something like that, to ensure their guy won. It also seems to me that at least one former cabinet minister in this federal Conservative government was involved.
      If I am right, then this bunch does have some experience.

    • Bill MacLeod says:

      “I wouldn’t put it past the HarperCons to help get out the NDP vote.”

      OK, this would accomplish…what?

      • Ridiculosity says:

        Harper’s days are numbered.

        If he can only just squeak by the Liberals after eradicating the majority of our budgetary surplus with vote-buying tax “goodies” like income splitting, he’s history.

      • Westcoastjim7 says:


        Anyone who can walk and breathe through their nose at the same time understands that the comment w concerns the Cons election strategy to split the non-conservative vote to allow the Cons to eke out a win.

        I suggest you take an extra portion of the green jello, go back to the kiddies table and let the adults talk politics. In four or five years, if you pay attention and study hard, you might have something useful to contribute. Until then STFU.

        Every person who follows Canadian politics.

  3. davie says:

    Mmmh!…I lived a little over 4 decades in a small city in our oil patch. I usually worked for NDP candidates, provincially and federally. Our results enabled me, after elections, to become very philosophical…very, very philosophical.
    I suspect that when your column is out tomorrow, I will be practicing philosophy again…and looking up ‘proportional representation ‘ again.

    • Cameron Prymak says:

      All this about tomorrow’s column in today’s post and referencing yesterday’s results reminds me that I need to go see Interstellar.

      But given your insights, I bet some politicians will be hoping for a worm hole tomorrow.

    • Cameron Prymak says:

      Davie- meant to post to general thread. Apologies.

  4. Al in Cranbrook says:

    Incoming results here…


    101 of 280 polls, Perkins – CPC @ 49%.

    • terence quinn says:

      The bigger surprise, in my opinion, is Yrllowhead where the Lib got 20% vs 2% last time. The Ontario riding, with a high profile candidate only got 49% to the Lib 41%. Next el;section when “mourning” over Flaherty will have faded that riding will be ours and I believe we could see 25 to 30% for the red machine in Yellowhead. That tells me there are definitely winnable seats in Alberta something that should have Al and his ilk sitting on the toilet for the next year.

      I think I can also see a potential change in Con leadership as a distinct possibility now. it will be an interesting winter.

      • MississaugaPeter says:

        Why the heck would the Cons change leadership after retaining two seats? Polling is slowly going in Harper’s direction.

        Sure the size of the lead changed, but neither Trudeaumania nor the Senate scandal nor even the recent revelations that Del Mastro’s legal charges was subsidized by taxpayers did not bring back to the Liberals an Ontario seat that they had before Flaherty.

        Close is not enough now or in an election.

        The optimism of winning an election when polling numbers are falling is a little premature.

        Question: Where was the mobilization of youth and other folks, that if done adequately through social media, should have resulted in a Liberal gain when so few older folk voted?

        What am I as.a long time Liberal saying? We lost and everyone is making it out we won. We didn’t. Something is not working well enough.

  5. Bobby says:

    I like how you wrote this so that it could go either way and you don’t end up looking like an idiot.

  6. Joe says:

    For some strange reason PM Harper reminds me of a candidate to be quarterback of the Edmonton Eskimos. The coach of the Eskimos was looking at Tom Wilkenson’s resume and commented, “Tom it says you can’t run and you can’t pass so why would I pick you for quarterback”? Tom’s reply was simple “Because I can win”.

    These two byelections are eerily similar to what recently happened in Alberta. There was no way the Wild Rose could lose – except they did. Harper’s government is tired, out of ideas, old, in need of being replaced except……

  7. Mike Bluth says:

    You still look like an idiot talking about the “Liberals doing so well” when the party loses by 42 points.

  8. G. McRae says:

    Whitby-Oshawa: 64,481 total votes in 2011. 2014 by-election: 34,605.
    Yellowhead: 41 575 total votes in 2011. 2014 by-election: 12,601.

    Isn’t this more of a story of the Conservative vote staying home? Especially in Alberta.

  9. MississaugaPeter says:

    JT and his folks have now won 5 of 11 by-elections since he became leader.

    The CON candidate may have been a Whitby mayor but I have never heard an acceptance speech so pathetic. Never. If her campaign was run like her speech, she was lucky to have even beat the NDP.

    The Liberal candidate may have been a rookie, but she appeared so much smoother (in a good way) and articulate than the Con clown.

    But the head clown was JT. He reads a written speech that was probably made in Telford/Silver’s Toronto office, and says “on my way here …” The arrogance of him and his team to think that crap like that will not be caught in a national campaign is incredible.

    This was a Liberal seat (Judi Longfield’s) for almost a decade before Flaherty stole it in 2004. The fact that the NDP did so well last time around was because of Layton, and as we all can agree, that in Ontario at least, Muclair is no Layton.

  10. ottawacon says:

    There is definitely some wildly optimistic interpretation of Yellowhead floating around. In a general election drubbing last time around, about 1100 people voted Liberal there. In a no-consequences byelection, about 2500 people voted Liberal there. That is somewhat less competitive than the Green party in most urban ridings. Turnout was so low it made the percentage look good, but the reality is usually that the partisan core shows up regardless.

    I’d agree with you that there is more negative for the NDP in Yellowhead than there is positive for the Liberals.

    • smelter rat says:

      16% voter turnout in Yellowhead. Not sure the results indicate anything other than apathy.

    • doconnor says:

      More then doubling the number of votes when turnout dropped by half is a very impressive accomplishment. Such success won’t win them Yellowhead, but being half as successful in ridings across the country during a general election would bring them to government.

  11. Adam says:

    More or less agree. I don’t know Oshawa-Whitby area well (my great-great-grandfather farmed not far away in Pickering, but I have no links), but your chart above suggests that the NDP never did terribly well there, until the recent collapse of the Liberal vote. It isn’t Oshawa center. I cannot imagine that a NDP new leader would help. It is a riding where the NDP generally don’t do that well.

    As you say, whimpering about a “smear campaign” at the last minute is another way of making excuses for a loss, so seemingly the Conservatives at the end were not too certain that they would win either.

    It is a shame that the Liberals did not try a more prominent candidate a bit earlier. Perhaps the Liberals didn’t think that they could win the riding. I hope they are not left sleeping like this again. I will probably vote Liberal myself next election, since my riding is unlikely to go NDP but could go Tory.

  12. Robin says:

    A highly motivated young voter (under 30) population using social medium to thwart the voter suppression and wedge issue strategies of the Harper Conservatives will increase voter participation in the next election and as Quebec voters see the rise in Liberal polls during the writ period they will embrace the Trudeau Liberals with the same zeal and magnitude that they embraced Jack Layton’s campaign in 2011. Hope will win over fear. Canadian values will triumph over Harper’s valueless regime. Mark your calendars, you heard it hear first.

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