Why predictions of PC defeat in Scarborough-Rouge River were wildly inaccurate

By Steve Paikin - Published on September 2, 2016
Raymond Cho (left) and Patrick Brown campaigning in Scarborough-Rouge River on Aug. 27. (Facebook/votepatrickbrown)

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Don’t you just love it when all the experts are wrong?

For the past few days, we’ve been inundated by pundits who’ve been adamant that Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown’s sex-ed snafu would lead to a crushing defeat in last night’s Scarborough-Rouge River byelection.

The loss would be especially disheartening for the Tories, because for the first time in 30 years, polls showed them actually competitive in that part of the city.

It will take some serious, in-depth polling before we ever know for sure why last night’s result was not at all what the pundits expected. But we can surely start to speculate on why Raymond Cho is now going from Toronto City Hall to Queen’s Park to assume his duties as the new PC MPP for Scarborough-Rouge River.

This byelection was the Liberals’ to lose. That part of Scarborough has been reliably red for more than 30 years (Rouge River was created in 1999, but even when it was part of another riding it had gone Grit since 1985).  Over the past five elections, the Liberals had won that part of the city easily  ̶  by 50 points as recently as 2007. And you’d think that by promising hundreds of millions of dollars to build a one-stop subway that many folks think is unnecessary, the government would have purchased enough love in the community named by former Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe’s wife Elizabeth to hang on to it. Not to mention the same PC candidate, Toronto city councillor Raymond Cho, came in third in Rouge River during the 2014 general election. 

The Liberals sure piled on with everything they had, after Brown’s self-inflicted error, to wit: suggesting he favoured, then opposed, then favoured yet again the government’s new sex-ed curriculum. News releases have been flying out of the Liberal press office with regularity over the past few days, trying to embarrass Brown as much as possible over his faux pas.

Early this week, education minister Mitzie Hunter held a photo op at a Toronto school, but made sure to criticize Brown during her media Q&A. Then deputy premier Deb Matthews followed up with an impromptu press conference slamming Brown’s predicament. Yet more press releases detailed a blow-by-blow chronology of Brown’s vs. Cho’s version of how the sex-ed confusion happened, pointing out all the inconsistencies in their respective stories.

In the end, it didn’t make a darned bit of difference, probably for several reasons:

  • The anti-government feeling around Ontario is pretty intense, with Premier Kathleen Wynne’s personal approval ratings hovering around the 16 percent mark.
  • Byelections are notoriously easy opportunities for the electorate to take a smack at any government, especially a majority government which these Liberals have. And that won’t change even after last night’s PC party upset.
  • If we’re considering ethnic politics, both the Liberals and New Democrats had candidates from the Canadian Tamil community. Any splitting of that vote would have helped Cho significantly.
  • The sex-ed fooferah ̶  and the ensuing supposed alienation of social conservatives  ̶  just wasn’t a factor. Or it certainly wasn’t as much of a factor as Scarborough’s antipathy to the incumbent government.

Perhaps the biggest unknown about last night’s results is what role Brown’s mea culpa had in firming up the Tory vote. Brown risked embarrassing himself further by disassociating himself from the anti-sex-ed pamphlet his own team circulated in the riding. To the extent anyone followed the drama, one can conclude that more potential Tory voters were impressed with his taking responsibility for the mess and re-affirming his original position, than those who were mad at him for his flip-flop-flip on the issue.

For her part, the premier is currently in Mexico, but in a statement released last night, admitted the result was “disappointing and gives me cause for reflection.” While Wynne has been focused on trying to run a truly transformational government (carbon emissions cap-and-trade, privatizing some of Hydro One, new political fundraising rules, a $160 billion infrastructure renewal program), she also acknowledged in her statement that she may have got tripped up on the more basic things people expect from their governments, such as affordable electricity rates.

“The government needs to focus on helping people with their everyday expenses,” she said.

But, at the risk of being a killjoy for conservatives, let’s remember this: three years and one month ago, the Tories were similarly overjoyed when they snagged the riding of Etobicoke-Lakeshore in a byelection. Again, it was a city councillor who moved to provincial politics (then-deputy Toronto mayor Doug Holyday) who won the seat for the blue team. But it was only a temporary victory. Less than a year later in the provincial general election, Lakeshore went right back to the Liberals, to the same candidate the voters rejected only ten months earlier  ̶  Peter Milczyn, the current MPP.

So, yes indeed, Tories should celebrate a brilliant upset win this week. But don’t think this means Wynne and her Liberals are cooked. A week is a lifetime in politics, and there are almost 100 lifetimes before the next general election. 

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