As by-election results rolled in on the evening of June 30, did Prime Minister Stephen Harper start contemplating the location of the nearest exit door?
It’s possible. After all, the quartet of by-elections arguably gave him plenty of cause for concern.
In the Alberta riding of Fort McMurray-Athabasca, his party’s candidate won handily, as most expected. But Team Harper received less than 6,000 of the nearly 84,000 entitled to vote. That means only about seven per cent of Fort Mac’s electorate were motivated enough to get off the couch and go vote Conservative. Also cause for concern: when contrasted to the 2011 general election, the Tory share of the vote in the riding shrunk by more than 20 per cent.
And the Liberals – the damned NEP-foisting socialist Liberals! – came a respectable second in Fort McMurray-Athabasca, the very heart of Alberta’s oil industry. They didn’t win, as the polling firm Forum Research had predicted. But the Trudeau Liberals are surging, even in places like Fort Mac, where all that previously preserved them were endangered species laws.
Turnout was similarly dire in a second Alberta riding, Macleod. There, the Conservatives won convincingly – but, as in Fort McMurray, the Liberals quadrupled their share of the vote from 2011. And, as in Fort McMurray, the Grits displaced the NDP as the Conservatives’ principal opponent.
Back East, where the remaining two by-elections were taking place in Toronto, the Conservatives were given much more to fret about.
In Scarborough-Agincourt, where the Tories were most competitive, the Liberals won all but one of 160 polls. They also received more than twice as many votes as the Conservatives – who had blanketed the riding with despicable leaflets that falsely claimed Justin Trudeau favoured the sale of marijuana to kids.
In Trinity-Spadina, meanwhile, the resurgent Liberals took back the riding they had held from 1993 to 2006. But the Conservatives received a measly five per cent of the vote – the same share as the Green Party candidate.
As is well-known, it’s foolish to suggest that by-elections portend general election results. Here in Ontario, for instance, Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals did poorly in a string of by-elections – and then won a stunning majority when all the votes were counted on June 12.
But, as he sifts through the by-election entrails, Harper can reliably extract three truths.
One, Justin Trudeau is no flash in the proverbial pan. His popularity endures. And millions spent on attack ads haven’t changed the reality: in the 50-odd polls that have been conducted since he became Liberal leader, Trudeau remains Canadians’ favourite choice to be Prime Minister.
Two, Canadians clearly want some sort of a change from Harper and/or his Conservatives. It isn’t scandal, so much, that has muddied the Conservative brand. It’s likelier the passage of time: nearly a decade in power have left the Conservatives looking decidedly tired and old. To many Canadians, they don’t represent places like Fort McMurray or Macleod in Ottawa anymore – they ARE Ottawa.
Three, Harper doesn’t have much to work with. Sure, he will boast about a federal budgetary surplus in the coming months – but with most provinces facing sizeable budgetary deficits, Harper’s fiscal success won’t be so clear-cut to many voters. And, apart from the surplus, what other issues can help Harper win support? Not ethics, and not social programs. What story will he tell on the hustings? It’s unclear.
Clearer, however, is that exit door. All that Stephen Harper need do is step through it.
And – presto – all of problems described above become someone else’s.