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.

No justice, no peace

Brilliantly done. Kudos, HuffPo.

And why is this so important? Because her name is all that she had left.  By saying her name, by remembering her, we can – hopefully, maybe – ensure that something like this never, ever happens again.




In Friday’s Sun: the hunted become the hunter

Have the hunted become the hunters?

This week, I spoke at a well-attended fundraiser for the Mississauga-Lakeshore federal Liberal association. Their impressive candidate Sven Spengemann was there, along with about 30 Grits. They were a great bunch – in part, because they didn’t throw any finger foods at me.

But there was another reason, too. They had that lean, hungry look about them – the look of political people who have grown tired of being the hunted, and were turning on the hunter.

Let us explain. For too long, progressives – and Liberals in particular – did not take Stephen Harper seriously. They underestimated him.

I cannot tell you how often I heard from Liberals – in 2005-6, 2008 and 2011 – that Stephen Harper was heading towards humiliating defeat. That he had a secret agenda to destroy Canada, and that he was going to lose because of it.

They’d say that Harper is a socially-conservative extremist who would ban abortion or gay marriage (he didn’t). Or that he would privatize health care and social programs (he didn’t). Or that he was a crypto-fascist with creepy eyes (he isn’t – and don’t be an idiot).

But Harper won the elections in each of those years. Creepy eyes notwithstanding, Harper’s political agenda wasn’t so secret – it was, in fact, right out there in the open, easily seen. It had two parts.

One, bring together the warring factions in the Reform Party and the Progressive Conservatives, and create a single, winning conservative force. He did that.

Two, drive the Liberal Party out of existence – with election law changes, with wedge politics, with whatever it takes.

But he didn’t do that.

The good Grits in Mississauga-Lakeshore are living proof. For one thing, they are still there, united, and election-ready. I therefore fully expect Spengemann will roll over the do-nothing Conservative MP who currently holds the riding.

For another, I didn’t detect the faintest whiff of arrogance or contempt in the hall at the beautiful Holcim Waterfront Estate. That is, none of them underestimate Stephen Harper’s political cunning. None of them hated him.

Liberals, instead, have acquired a grudging respect for Harper’s political skills. They have learned, the hard way, that you underestimate Stephen Harper at your peril.

And, as such, they are no longer the prey. They instead have Harper in their sights – and they had plenty of questions for me about what makes Harper tick, and what he is likely to do in the coming months.

For Harper, the weeks and months ahead loom large. For him, there is history to be made.

As my colleague David Akin has noted, Harper has – as of today – become the sixth longest-serving Prime Minister. As of today, he has surpassed Brian Mulroney’s tenure. If he makes it to the Spring of 2016, he will have bested the record of my former boss Jean Chretien – and become the fifth longest-serving Prime Minister.

Will he make it? Will he win the election that is supposed to happen in October 2015, but could come much sooner than that?

No one knows. But one thing is certain: the smart Liberals in places like Mississauga-Lakeshore don’t underestimate Stephen Harper. And they don’t hate him, either – they respect his smarts, as you should respect any political adversary who has survived for this long.

This much will become known, too: the Liberals, for so long the hunted, are now turning on the hunter.

And Stephen Harper shouldn’t underestimate them.