Last week’s byelections burst the Ottawa bubble

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Mid-term report cards on the governing Liberals have been flagging. They were unanimous in predicting the honeymoon was over. But four byelections in other parts of the country told a different story.


First published on Monday, December 18, 2017 in The Hill Times.

OTTAWA—Byelections burst the Ottawa bubble last week.

Mid-term report cards on the governing Liberals have been flagging. They were unanimous in predicting the honeymoon was over.

But four byelections in other parts of the country told a different story.

The Liberals made surprising gains in British Columbia, while the Conservatives lost a seat but gained in popular vote. The New Democrat Party ended in deep trouble.

Losses by both opposition parties are interrelated.

A Tory general election victory could not happen without a hike in NDP support to peel votes away Liberal votes.

Just as Jean Chrétien’s government benefited from a right-wing split to win three successive majorities, Stephen Harper’s Conservative three-peat was spawned by splits on the left.

Most concerning for the New Democrats must be that their new leader underperformed in the very areas where his singular attributes were supposed to grow the vote.

Born in Scarborough, Jagmeet Singh was tagged to increase NDP support in suburban GTA, and in the Surrey-White Rock riding adjacent to one of the largest Indo-Canadian populations in the country.

After Singh was chosen leader of the NDP, most pundits predicted his charisma and unique visible minority status would dip into potential Liberal support in key battlegrounds like Toronto and Vancouver.

After all, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau enjoyed strong support amongst women and minorities, and his diverse cabinet reflected those successes.

Being a minister is one thing. Being leader is a more compelling story. Most believed support from diverse populations in places like Surrey and Scarborough would bleed away from the Liberals in favour of Singh.

The byelections put that myth to rest. Singh needs to take a long, hard look at these results and revisit his current absence from the House of Commons.

In most instances, the political fight was strictly between the Liberals and the Tories, although the NDP retained second-place status in Saskatchewan. Everywhere else, the New Democrats were simply irrelevant.

The Conservatives improved their overall vote percentage, but the most efficient voter operation was that of the Liberals.

Not only did the party hold on to support in vote-rich Toronto, it actually defeated the Tories in a British Columbia seat that had not been Liberal for more than 75 years.

Contrary to Singh, Andrew Scheer has been building Conservative Party support since his leadership win.

While working to solidify the votes of traditional Conservatives, the leader also needs to focus on moving up with swing voters across the country.

Increasing the Tory vote in rural Saskatchewan, while making good headlines, does not actually change a general election result.

Trudeau and the Liberals are obviously benefitting from the strength of the national economy. But they decided not to ignore the importance of by-elections in preparing a general election strategy.

Historically, leaders of all parties have stayed out of by-elections. But, as in so many other areas, Trudeau threw away the playbook. His personal popularity still outstrips that of his party in many parts of the country, so he campaigned hard in ridings where the party was expecting close outcomes. That work paid off.

It didn’t mean so much in seats that the Liberals already held. But it did allow the grits to sideline the NDP in races that could be a portent of the next general election.

The more trouble the NDP is having, the harder it will be for the party to recruit quality candidates who can make a difference in a tight local race.

Last week’s Liberal winner in British Columbia had already enjoyed a successful political career as a popular local mayor and provincial minister. He was facing off against a well-known Conservative former provincial and federal minister. The NDP candidate, a community organizer, barely outpaced the Green Party candidate in support.

Singh really needs to hit the reset button, and the best way to do that is to get a seat in the House of Commons. He needs the visibility that comes with Question Period and the opportunity to act as chief party spokesperson on key parliamentary issues.

Without the benefit of constant Ottawa exposure, Singh is not going to be able to increase his media presence by travelling the country.

Scheer needs to move beyond reinforcing his right-wing base by shifting his party to the centre, if he has any hope of winning the next election.

Notwithstanding Ottawa insiders, the prime minister seems to be moving in the right direction.

If it ain’t broke, he probably does not need to fix it.

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