The Liberals just won two byelections — but they should be nervous

The party had tough fights for two of its safest seats. They ultimately triumphed in Toronto, but they may not want to pat themselves on the back
By Steve Paikin - Published on Oct 27, 2020
Marci Ien (left) has held Toronto Centre for the Liberals; Liberal Ya’ara Saks claimed victory in York Centre. (Chris Young/CP; Facebook)

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Byelections are usually wonderful, consequence-free opportunities to stick it to the government of the day. And given the Liberal government’s 33-seat lead over the second-place Conservatives in the House of Commons, voters in two Ontario ridings had the opportunity to do that last night. And they did.

Sort of. But not really.

Toronto Centre has been one of the safest Liberal seats in the country for decades. It’s been solidly red for 27 straight years and for all but 15 of the last 58 years. So the fact that former broadcaster Marci Ien held it for the Liberals last night was no giant surprise.

However, Ien’s vote dropped 15 percentage points compared to what former finance minister Bill Morneau was able to win in the general election exactly a year ago. If the Liberals are capturing only 42 per cent of the votes in one of their safest seats, that ought to raise serious concerns for the party nationwide.

The reason the Grit vote was down so much can be attributed in part to the remarkably strong performance by the Green party’s new leader, Annamie Paul. Paul ran in Toronto Centre during last year’s election and placed a weak fourth, with just 7 per cent of the vote. Of course, she wasn’t the leader then and was a virtual unknown.

But more voters have come to know her since her leadership victory, and she boosted her vote by 25 percentage points last night.

"This result stands as a clear statement of our intention to run competitively everywhere in the next general election, even in Liberal strongholds,” Paul told me in an email this morning. “It's a shot across the bow."

Paul’s candidacy gave rise to one of the more unusual developments I’ve ever seen in a byelection campaign.  Three stalwarts from the three major parties — the Liberals’ Greg Sorbara, the Conservatives’ Hugh Segal, and the NDP’s Zanana Akande — in a Toronto Star op-ed piece urged their supporters not to vote for their parties this time, but rather to vote for Paul, so impressed were they by her candidacy and the chance to make history by having the country’s first-ever Black leader take a seat in Parliament. It may have helped propel the Green party leader’s vote to 33 per cent this time.

“We’re disappointed about falling short, but it’s just her first crack at it,” said a campaign source in an email. “Pretty good after only 3.5 weeks I think! If we had only one more week — famous last words I know.”

While Paul’s campaign took heart at their candidate’s much improved performance, there was also some disappointment that she didn’t win. After all, this was a consequence-free chance to beat the Liberals, as the outcome wouldn’t markedly change the standings in the House. Paul clearly loves Toronto Centre and would love to have won there, tapping into thousands of potential supporters among the student bodies at local post-secondary institutions (U of T, Ryerson, OCAD U, and George Brown College, for example).  

She was also able to campaign in the media capital of the country, an opportunity that former leader Elizabeth May could never avail herself of, because she represented a riding in British Columbia. One of the leader’s toughest calls going forward will involve deciding whether to contest Toronto Centre again or to seek another riding where the Greens may have a better shot at winning.

Meanwhile, in the northwest part of Ontario’s capital city, York Centre was a roller-coaster ride all night long, with the lead flipping back and forth between the Liberal and Conservative candidates. At one point, with more than 80 per cent of the polls reporting, the difference between the two candidates was literally one vote.

York Centre has been Liberal for all but four of the past 58 years. And it stayed Liberal last night, but not without a heckuva lot of nail-biting. Liberal candidate Ya’ara Saks narrowly defeated Conservative candidate Julius Tiangson by fewer than 4 percentage points. In last year’s general election, the Liberals won the riding by 13 points. Particularly heart-breaking for the Conservatives was the fact that the leader of the People’s Party of Canada, Maxime Bernier, ran in this riding. Bernier showed poorly, coming fourth. But he took 3.6 per cent of the votes, presumably almost all of which would have gone to the Conservative candidate had Bernier not run.  So you could say Bernier played spoiler and continues to enjoy his revenge against the party whose leadership he lost by only two points on the 13th ballot three years ago. He potentially deprived new Conservative leader Erin O’Toole of some spectacular bragging rights, which would have put real wind in the Tories’ sails. Instead, we’re reminded of the truest maxim there is in politics: A win is a win is a win. And the Liberals won.  

Why did the Conservatives do so much better, albeit ultimately in a losing effort?

“I would very much like to know what’s driving CPC success here,” tweeted Stephen Harper’s former director of policy, Rachel Curran, last night. “Alarm about the fiscal situation? Jewish voters upset about the National Security Council seat strategy? Tiangson’s own network and campaign? All of the above?”   

Clearly and overall, the Liberal vote was down significantly in a part of the country that the party depends on to form government. If Liberals had been patting themselves on the back for the great job they’ve done fighting the coronavirus pandemic, they might want to rethink their self-congratulatory tone.

Yes, both minority governments in New Brunswick and British Columbia just parlayed their COVID-19 stewardship into majority governments. And the conservative Saskatchewan Party renewed its majority government last night — a fourth consecutive win. And the Ontario Tories are significantly higher in the polls today than they were a year ago.

But last night’s byelections once again prove that no one can take anything for granted in Canadian politics. Even if you’re a Liberal in two of your safest seats in the country.  

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