Four federal by-elections were held last night, with the Conservatives holding two seats in Alberta (Macleod and Fort McMurray-Athabaska) and the Liberals retaining another in Ontario (Scarborough-Agincourt).
The remaining bout saw the Grits capture an Ontario riding (Trinity-Spadina) from the New Democrats. Created in 1988, the seat has been contested in general elections on eight occasions, and the NDP (Dan Heap and Olivia Chow) and Liberals (Tony Ianno) each have won four times.
During the current parliament (the 41st), 13 by-elections have been held to date, of which the governing Conservatives have won six; the Opposition New Democrats, two; and the Liberals, five.
Do the results so far offer any insight into the next federal general election, slated for October 2015?
Conservatives. Seven of the 13 by-elections have been held in seats the Tories captured in the 2011 general election – three in Alberta, two in Manitoba, one in Ontario, and another in Newfoundland and Labrador.
The governing party has retained all of their ridings save the one in Atlantic Canada (Labrador), which Conservative newcomer Peter Penashue took in the previous general election by a mere 79 votes. Historically a Liberal stronghold, it was no surprise that the seat reverted to the Grits in a by-election necessitated by the incumbent’s election-expense irregularities.
While pundits have predicted by-election upsets in several Tory-held ridings (notably Calgary Centre, Brandon-Souris and Fort McMurray-Athabaska), the Conservatives usually have prevailed by fairly comfortable margins. (The exception, Brandon-Souris, was held by just 389 votes – or 1.4 percentage points.)
If by-elections are opportunities for voters to express their wrath for the governing party, it seems there is little to suggest a widespread, white-hot burning anger towards the Conservatives.
Indeed, at this point it looks like Stephen Harper’s Tories may hold onto most of the seats they took on the Prairies and rural Ontario in 2011. Defeat for the government does not yet appear imminent, although the prospects for a second consecutive majority remain uncertain.
New Democrats. The New Democratic Party stunned much of Canada in 2011 by winning a record-high 103 seats and forming – for the first time in history – the Official Opposition. Remarkably, the NDP captured 59 of Quebec`s 75 seats as the Bloc Quebecois was reduced to a paltry four MPs.
Ontario and British Columbia are the New Democrats’ other bastions; in 2011 they took 22 seats in the former province and 12 in the latter. The party holds seats in the low single-digits in most of the remaining provinces and territories.
The NDP held three of the 13 federal ridings that have featured by-elections since the last general election: the party retained two (Toronto-Danforth – previously represented by Jack Layton, the party Leader whose untimely death in the summer of 2011 rocked the country – and Victoria) but failed to hold the third (Trinity-Spadina).
The by-election results appear less-than encouraging for the New Democrats – besides the two victories, the party has finished second four times, but third or even fourth in the remaining seven tilts.
Far from building on their spectacular breakthrough in 2011 and aiming to form government in 2017, it now appears that the Thomas Mulcair-led NDP must fight a rear-guard action just to consolidate their status as the Official Opposition.
In Quebec and Ontario, the New Democrats’ main foe is the Liberal Party; in B.C., the party must battle both the Grits and the Greens. (The Green Party finished a close second in the Victoria by-election and appears to be competitive in several Vancouver Island ridings.)
Liberals. Three by-elections have been held in seats won by the Grits in 2011; the party retained all three and picked up two more – one apiece from the Conservatives and NDP.
Indeed, not only have the Liberals finished first on five occasions, they’ve been runner-ups six other times.
In 2011, Canada’s once-natural governing party suffered its worst election result since Confederation – capturing just 34 seats and falling to third-party status in the House of Commons. Under former Leader Michael Ignatieff, the Liberals took a mere dozen seats in Atlantic Canada, 11 in Ontario, seven in Quebec, and a measly four in the Prairies and B.C.
The party’s fortunes, as is evidenced by the recent by-election results, clearly seem to be improving under Justin Trudeau’s leadership.
Will that momentum continue through the next federal general election? A majority government looks to be out of reach – the Grits would have to skyrocket from 34 seats in 2011, to at least 170 in 2017 – and even a minority seems incredibly optimistic.
Official opposition may be a more realistic objective, which suggests that a Liberal-NDP battle is looming for the fall of 2017.