Byelection results and Mulroney leave a message of moderation for Poilievre 

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The Conservative Party’s right flank could be damaged by the People’s Party, but its left flank is in deeper disarray.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on June 26, 2023.

OTTAWA—The four federal byelections last week sent a definite change message.

This time, the call for change went not to the prime minister, but to the leader of the Conservative Party.

Those byelections on June 19 saw the Tories’ percentage of the vote fall in three of the four ridings.

The Conservatives were not even close to being in the running in Winnipeg South Centre, Man., and their victory narrowed to a mere five per cent in Oxford, Ont., one of Ontario’s safest Tory ridings.

That close result was in stark contrast to the 2021 federal election, when the Conservatives in that riding were at 47 per cent of the vote compared to only 20 per cent for the Liberals.

The good news for the Conservatives was the poor performance of People’s Party of Canada (PPC) Leader Maxime Bernier in the Tory stronghold of Portage—Lisgar, Man.

In 2021, the PPC garnered their best national showing in that constituency, winning 21.58 per cent of the vote. With Bernier running this time, they dropped to 17.2 per cent.

The Tories’ right flank could be damaged by Bernier. On the money front, in the last quarter of 2022, the PPC experienced its best non-election fundraising quarter ever, raising $725,293, not far from the $866,505 donated to the Green Party.

But the Tory left flank is in deeper disarray.

The Oxford battle wound was self-inflicted, as Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre parachuted his chosen candidate into a riding where outgoing MP Dave MacKenzie was promoting his own daughter.

The internal party situation got so ugly that MacKenzie endorsed local Liberal candidate David Hilderley after accusing his party of rigging the nomination results.

It is difficult to read much into the shift in the Oxford vote because it was prompted more by internal infighting than by a popularity spike for the Liberals.

The presence of winning candidate Arpan Khanna, a co-chair of Poilievre’s successful leadership campaign and a lawyer who practices in Mississauga, Ont., turned the riding nomination into an internal battle.

The result could simply be a political one-off, but Poilievre doesn’t appear to be changing his strategy in his take-no-prisoners approach to electioneering.

His tactic may delight his hardline supporters, but it is certainly not helping him with moderate Tories.

Another political slap was levelled at the Conservative leader last week when former Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney praised Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during an Atlantic economic forum in Antigonish, N.S.

Mulroney hailed Trudeau’s leadership on big issues like COVID-19 and free trade, and said that those issues are what he will be remembered for, not for “the trivia and the trash and the rumours that make the rounds in Ottawa.”

Mulroney’s comments were noteworthy, not just for what he said, but also what he didn’t say. The former leader with the largest electoral majority in Canadian history did not even mention the name ‘Poilievre’, instead focusing his criticism on the tone of politics today.

But the message was not lost on anyone. If there is one person responsible for the negative tone in Parliament today, it is Poilievre.

The New Democrats saw their vote percentage fall in all of the byelections. That must also be a cause for concern, as their role in supporting the government’s agenda on progressive social items like dental care and pharmacare appears to be going unrewarded.

That conclusion presents a dilemma for NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, because if he extricates his party from the agreement, it would likely prompt a quick election. The NDP can’t afford a quick vote unless the party can show there is political momentum in their direction.

Instead, the general analysis of the byelection patterns shows voters deciding between the Liberals and the Conservatives, edging out any chance for New Democratic growth.

The Green Party’s candidate for co-leader, Jonathan Pedneault, was also roundly trounced in the Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Westmount, Que., byelection that saw former Liberal president Anna Gainey elected by a majority vote.

Most of the opposition votes were split equally among the Greens, the NDP and the Conservatives.

General elections are usually dependent on the popularity of the government, not the strength of the opposition. If there is a national desire for change, that is a difficult wave to reverse.

But if the call for change is focused on the person who wants to replace the prime minister, that could complicate the narrative.

Last year, Mulroney warned Poilievre that he would have to moderate his rhetoric if he wants to win.

Mulroney and the byelections last week reinforced a message of moderation.

It remains to be seen whether Poilievre will listen.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.