Federal Leaders in By-elections and the Burnaby battleground

Updated (August 17th)

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh announced his bid for a federal seat today in the riding of Burnaby South, vacated by Vancouver mayoralty aspirant and NDP incumbent Kennedy Stewart.

Burnaby South is over 4,000 km from Singh’s former riding in the Brampton area, but he’s certainly not the first federal leader to leave his home province to seek entry into the House via a by-election.

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Will Jagmeet Singh ride on to victory in Burnaby-South? [Cycling Magazine]

Rt. Hon. Brian Mulroney was elected in 1983 as MP from the riding of Central Nova in Nova Scotia.  He gave the seat back to Elmer MacKay when he led the 1984 election from his hometown riding of Manicouagan in Quebec.  Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper found a seat close to home in 2002 when he re-entered the House from Preston Manning’s seat of Calgary Southwest. Rebel founder Ezra Levant had secured the nomination but was evidently persuaded to step aside for the new leader of the Canadian Alliance (this was before the Alliance and PC’s merged).  Of note, both the Liberals and the PC candidate, Jim Prentice, stepped aside to make way for Harper.  The NDP fielded a candidate.

Rt. Hon. Joe Clark made a political comeback to return as leader of the Progressive Conservative Party in 1998 and sought election to the House of Commons in early 2000 when then-PC MP Scott Brison stepped aside in Kings-Hant to make way.

As for Liberals, the longest-serving Prime Minister of all-time, Rt. Hon. William Lyon Mackenzie King, lost his seat in York North in 1925 and sought a new seat in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, winning a by-election there in February 1926.  An interesting side note is that Rt. Hon. John Diefenbaker encouraged an independent to run against King in the by-election, then Diefenbaker himself ran unsuccessfully against King in the subsequent 1926 general election. King would continue to represent Prince Albert until the 1945 election when he lost to a CCFer.  He sought re-entry into the House via Glengarry in Ontario and retired while representing that seat.

Rt. Hon. John Turner was the newly appointed prime minister, without a seat, when he announced he would contest the 1984 election from Vancouver-Quadra.  While he had attended UBC and had a longstanding family connection to BC, he had lived in Eastern Canada for decades and did not pretend too hard that he would actually move to Vancouver.  Despite the disastrous national campaign, Turner held on to claim Quadra from the PC’s and the Liberals have held it for the past 34 years.

Jean Chrétien’s return to the House of Commons in 1990 came via the New Brunswick riding of Beausejour. He returned to his home riding of Saint-Maurice

The NDP can look back at the experience of Tommy Douglas.  Douglas was defeated in his first attempt to win election to the House of Commons from the riding of Regina-Centre in 1962.  The former Saskatchewan premier, and first elected leader of the NDP, had to find a seat out-of-province in… Burnaby.  He was elected in Burnaby-Coquitlam in 1963 and 1965.  In 1968, he contested Burnaby-Seymour (similar to MP Terry Beech’s current riding) and lost to Hon. Ray Perrault.  Perrault was a former leader of the BC Liberal Party and a gritty, grassroots politician.  While he would only serve one-term, he went on to a distinguished career in the Senate.  As for Douglas, his opportunity to regain a seat was borne from tragedy when Nanaimo-Cowichan-The Islands MP Colin Cameron (grandfather of NDP strategist Robin Sears) passed away not longer after the 1968 election.  Douglas won a 1969 by-election there and represented the seat until 1979.

Topical in the news these days is Rt. Hon. John A. Macdonald who was elected in Victoria in 1878.  I assumed it was a by-election victory, but he actually contested three separate ridings in the general election that year, and, having lost in Kingston, he chose to represent Victoria where he had defeated Liberal Amor de Cosmos (!).  Sir Wilfred Laurier also contested multiple districts and won in both Quebec-East and Saskatchewan provisional district in 1896, choosing to represent Quebec-East.

Green Party leader Elizabeth May announced on August 16th that due to  “longstanding parliamentary tradition” she would extend ‘leader’s courtesy’ to Jagmeet Singh by not fielding a Green candidate.

Longstanding tradition?  That’s a selective interpretation of history.  Here are the by-elections contested by leaders:

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Every leader noted above has been contested in a by-election, and since 1962, every leader has been contested by at least one other main political party.  The NDP have never extended Leader’s courtesy in a by-election.  Even the Greens contested Harper’s by-election.   And certainly on a provincial level, neither the Greens nor the NDP honoured the “longstanding parliamentary tradition” of leader’s courtesy to Hon. Christy Clark in her two by elections (Point Grey in 2011, West Kelowna in 2013).

Courtesy aside, leaders need a seat in the House and sometimes have to go far afield to find one.  When they are ‘adopted’, sometimes they stay put.  Singh says he will move to Burnaby.

But can Jagmeet Singh win Burnaby-South?  Presumably, the NDP have polled the riding and believe they can win it.  It would be a huge risk, otherwise.  It does not appear to be a slam-dunk seat for the NDP though.

In 2015, Liberal Adam Pankratz won election day.  It was Kennedy Stewart’s margin-of-victory in the advance polls that saved his bacon.  This was a result of two factors – Liberal momentum was still building during the advance polls and the NDP had a superior GOTV machine.

Table 1: Burnaby-South in 2011 and 2015

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Liberal Adam Pankratz (left) with PM Trudeau and MP Terry Beech [Burnaby Now]

Liberal gains in 2015 came at the expense of both the NDP and the Conservatives.  Pankratz himself, a young, educated multilingual candidate whose father was a well-known BC Lion football player, presented well for the Liberals.

There are other variables to consider.

The federal NDP typically does not do well in British Columbia when there is an NDP government in Victoria.  The 1974 election was a disaster for the federal NDP, in the height of the Dave Barrett government.  The federal NDP were decimated in the 1993, 1997, and 2000 elections in BC while a parade of NDP premiers governed (though Svend Robinson held his Burnaby riding).  Will it be a factor this time?  At this point, I don’t think the provincial NDP have angered voters in the manner of previous NDP governments.  It’s early days.  However, being in power can demotivate activists who are accustomed to fighting the establishment rather than being a part of it.

Singh’s connection to BC is not apparently strong.  He will have recruited support during his NDP leadership run in BC, especially from the South Asian community.  But he lacks the personal ‘story’ that Mulroney had in Nova Scotia (he attended university) or Turner had in BC.  Maybe there is one that I haven’t heard yet, and it may not matter that much anyway.

Another factor is Kinder Morgan.  On the surface of it, the NDP have this field to themselves.  The NDP Mayor of Burnaby, a formidable force, strongly opposes the pipeline.  The Liberals and the Conservatives are on the other side of the debate.  Assuming the Greens can be kept at bay (a big assumption), the NDP may have room on that issue.  But is the worm turning on this issue? The protest camp has been drawing negative attention.  Are people ‘worn out’ on all of the Kinder politics? We’ll see.

Municipally in Burnaby, Mayor Derek Corrigan has ruled since 2002.  He has built a strong political machine.  For the first time in a long time, he faces a credible challenge this October.  Will that divert energies away from Singh’s campaign? Will the winds of change blow away from NDP candidates?  Opponents hope, but I know from experience that the NDP machine in Burnaby is real.  It will take a lot to defeat them.  Singh has to get the most out of the local organization.

About 46,000 residents voted in 2015.  In a by-election, the turnout is almost always lower.  GOTV will be a huge factor.  Not just the ‘machine’ but the motivation of voters to vote.  Will they turn out for Jagmeet Singh? He will have to build a connection with them.

Kennedy Stewart’s departure may be another factor.  Vancouver mayoralty candidates will be taking shots at Stewart for leaving his post as a Burnaby MP to run in another jurisdiction.  It turns out Stewart was living in Vancouver – how is that going over in Burnaby? Issues like “demovictions” are being raised in Burnaby which could make life uncomfortable for NDPers.  It may all amount to nothing and the status quo may well prevail.  We’ll see how the opposition approaches it.

Singh obviously has the most to win and lose.  A win gets him into the House while getting a weight off his back.  A loss could be curtains for him.

Some Liberals may want Singh to win, preferring his leadership to an unknown alternative that could present itself in the aftermath of a Singh by-election loss.  Liberals ought to be concerned about the Conservatives winning though.  As the 2011 results show, the Conservatives were not far off.  The Liberals could consider not running a candidate, as was the case with the Stephen Harper by-election in 2002.  This would be a bit surprising given their narrow margin of defeat in 2015.  They might also yield the seat to the Conservatives if they fail to contest it.  We will most likely see all parties in it.

It will be an interesting test of the three parties.  We have seen the Liberals steal a Conservative seat in White Rock and the Conservatives steal a Liberal seat in Chicoutimi in recent by-elections.  Local factors played a big role, but this by-election will take on more of a national dimension.

The upshot is that Singh is the favourite but there are a lot of reasons why this may not be an easy ride.  It’s not a slam dunk.  He does not have the advantages of being a sitting prime minister and not especially well-known in British Columbia. The riding was a close call in 2015.  It’s a risk, but politics often rewards the risk-takers.  Or buries them.

 

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Taking a look at Chicoutimi

This week’s by-election made me a bit curious about Chicoutimi.  It’s a long way from my perch on the west coast and probably even further in cultural terms. Turns out to be a pretty interesting riding in terms of its political history and volatility.

The riding boundaries have changed over time but I have gone with the main Chicoutimi riding to see the overall trends (purists alert – this is not precise, just directional).  Since Diefenbaker, Chicoutimi has gone Creditiste, Liberal, PC, Bloc, PC, Liberal, NDP, Liberal, and, now, CPC.

Chart 1: Chicoutimi federal election results since 1962

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Here’s a closer look at elections since 2000…

Chart 2: Chicoutimi federal election results since 2000 only

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As the charts show, there has been huge volatility over time.  Parties swing from domination to destruction.  For the NDP, they managed to go from 8% to winning with 38% and back to 9% over four elections.

The Liberal percentage held fairly steady compared to 2015.  Before 2015, the prior Liberal win was with Andre Harvey who had been first elected as a federal PC MP in 1984.  Harvey won in ’84, ’88, and ’97 as PC, but crossed over, and won as a Liberal in 2000. Harvey’s nemesis was the Bloc Quebecois which won in ’93 and again in 2004, 2006, and 2008 before giving way to the one-and-done NDP MP.

The Conservatives were lower than a snake’s belly in 2000 and 2004, and only at 17% last election, but clearly their candidate in the by-election did an excellent job drawing support.  The question is: are we also seeing a consolidation in Quebec between the Liberals on one side and the Conservatives on the other, feasting from the remnants of NDP and Bloc support?

I will leave that to others to judge. Quebec politics is definitely above my pay scale.

On a national basis, if the NDP collapses in Quebec, it will have an impact on their national effort.  The NDP had one-quarter of the vote in Quebec in 2015, with Quebec representing about one-quarter of the national population.  That’s good for about 6% nationally in the popular vote.  Chicoutimi-Le Fjord dropped from 29.7% (above Quebec average for NDP in 2015) to 8.7% in the by-election.  Not to read too much into by-elections, but if the NDP slip to 10% province-wide in the next election, that drops their national share of the vote by about 4%.  That means they are going to look more like a third party that can’t keep up with the Liberals and Conservatives, whereas in 2011 and 2015, they were at the main table.  The Layton legacy is in real jeopardy and that will have consequences across the country unless they can find new voters elsewhere. The Tom Mulcair days are looking pretty good right now.

Pondering a Nanaimo By-election

Nanaimo NDP MLA Leonard Krog announced his candidacy for Mayor of Nanaimo on Wednesday.  If he wins, his resignation as MLA will set up a high stakes by-election that could have a major impact on the government’s razor thin margin in the House.

Nanaimo is a mess and an embarrassment.  Whatever the reasons are, the Council has failed to pull themselves together, evidenced by criminal investigations, staff departures, and chaos. The City, renowned for tasty Nanaimo bars and bathtub races, but lately for dysfunctional politics, desperately needs new leadership.

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Krog pondering the fate of British Columbia.  (Nanaimo News Now)

Leonard is a well-respected elected official who has respect from both sides of the electoral fence.  I lived in the area for 15 years and saw Leonard around town a lot – he’s present.  He’s well liked.  I like him.  He’s a good constituency MLA.

The City has a ton of potential.  It’s growing, it has an underrated university that does great things, an airport that is one of the fastest growing in Canada, and if someone would please figure out a passenger-ferry link to Vancouver, it would be very attractive for housing-stressed families that work in Vancouver area.  It’s a pretty good lifestyle on the mid-Island.  It would be even better if the City could get its act together.

It is surprising though that Leonard would seek to leave his post as MLA.  When I first heard the rumours of his mayoral candidacy, I rejected them out of hand.  Notwithstanding the need in Nanaimo, the NDP have a precarious hold on the Legislature after having endured a sixteen year time-out.  I thought there was no way that a by-election could even be contemplated.

Leonard has been serving as MLA since 2005 (and before that he was a government backbencher from 1991-1996).  He has 17 years of service, but the call to Cabinet did not come last year.  Perhaps, had it not been for Darryl Plecas, he would be Speaker today, and, thus, a central figure in a split Legislature.  That opportunity passed him by as well.  I’m not sure if any of this factored into his decision, but here we are.

If Leonard wins as mayor and resigns as MLA, the Legislature would then stand at 40 NDP, 3 Green, 42 BC Liberal, and 1 Independent until a by-election fills the seat.

If the BC Liberals win the by-election, they would then have as many MLAs as the combined NDP-Greens, with the Independent Speaker (formerly a BC Liberal) holding the tiebreaker.  We can go back a year in time to the exhaustive discussions about how the Legislature will be in gridlock if it is tied.  The recruitment of Darryl Plecas relieved that pressure, but losing the by-election makes the situation worse than it was pre-Plecas, especially when the situation would be one of the NDP’s own making.

It should be noted that there already is a strong candidate in the Nanaimo mayor’s race – Don Hubbard.  Don is a former chair of Vancouver Island University, a former chair of the Vancouver Island Health Authority, past Citizen of the Year, and an active businessperson in the Nanaimo area.  He brings a lot to the table as a mayoralty candidate.  While he does not have the profile of Leonard, Nanaimo has only elected one left-leaning mayor (Joy Leach) since the 1960s, and through much of that time, elected a free enterprise pirate.   Hubbard is more than capable to be the mayor and could save Horgan the grief of a by-election.

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Modern-day Nanaimo Pirate: Is Leonard Krog making John Horgan walk the plank?

If Leonard does win and resign, is there a chance the NDP could lose the by-election?

There are a number of things about the Nanaimo riding to consider.

  • Nanaimo is a north-south City.  The BC Liberals are strong in the north; the NDP are very strong in the south.  A lot of North Nanaimo was previously in the Parksville-Qualicum riding when Judith Reid and Ron Cantelon were the MLAs, but the redistribution prior to 2009 pushed the core Nanaimo seat to the north.  This favoured the BC Liberals chances in Nanaimo, but they have not been able to capitalize on that shift.  Had former BC Liberal MLA Mike Hunter run on the current boundaries in 2005, he would have been very close to winning the seat.  Instead, he lost to Leonard on previous boundaries.
  • Prior to 2017, the boundaries were tweaked.  It improved the riding yet again for the BC Liberals as some polls in the tough south end were swapped over to Nanaimo-North Cowichan while some good BC Liberal polls were added in.  It didn’t help. The BC Liberals did worse in 2017 but that was for other reasons.
  • With Leonard, the NDP had a strong candidate with a strong local brand.  There is no question he added to the NDP margin.  In 2013, BC Liberal Walter Anderson was the 84th of 85 BC Liberal candidates nominated.  He was in Hawaii when the campaign started and was recruited by phone.  He did a good job and lost to Leonard by only 9.5% – not a huge margin, and won 34 polls, indicating a solid base of support.  Had the NDP not had Leonard, had the BC Liberals been more organized, and had the current boundaries been in place, it might have gone to the BC Liberals.  Coulda shoulda woulda.

Chart 1: Total votes in Nanaimo riding by Party (2005-2017)

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  • In 2017, the BC Liberals performed poorly across the entire Island.  While Paris Gaudet increased the number of votes for the BC Liberals compared to 2013, turnout increased considerably with the Greens and NDP also growing.  The spread between the NDP and BC Liberals grew.  Things have changed now.  Christy Clark – who had become a lightning rod – has moved on.  Andrew Wilkinson is yet to be truly introduced to voters.  John Horgan appears strong on the Island but he will not have Leonard on the ballot this time and will have to account for government decisions over the past year.

By-elections in BC suck for governments.  Since 1981 when the Social Credit government won a by-election in Kamloops,  a sitting government has only won by-elections twice and, in both cases, the candidate’s name was Christy Clark (Point Grey and Westside-Kelowna).

The NDP never lost one of their own seats to a by-election in the 1990s, because no one resigned.  In fact, no NDP MLA resigned during the Barrett government either.  If Leonard resigns, it will be the first time in BC history that any NDP MLA has resigned his or her seat while an NDP government held power.

While they didn’t have to defend any seats in the 1990s,  the NDP were trounced in numerous by-elections, including Parksville-Qualicum in 1998 in which Leonard was a candidate.  He had been the MLA in the riding from 1991-1996 but lost in a squeaker to Parksville Mayor Paul Reitsma.  Reitmsa disgraced himself over phoney letters to the editor, and other transgressions, and resigned before he could be recalled.  What was a slim defeat for Leonard in 1996 mushroomed to a 28-point swing and blowout win for BC Liberal Judith Reid in the 1998 by-election.

One year later, in the Delta South by-election,  NDP support plunged from 26% in the previous general election to 2.44%.  This may be a record-low in Canada for an incumbent government in a by-election (which can’t be blamed on the candidate, Richard Tones, who dutifully put his name on the ballot).  Yes, Millennials, the NDP government really was that unpopular.  Is the Horgan government at the same stage as Glen Clark’s government twenty years ago?  No.  Not even close.  But stuff happens and who knows what the next 2, 3, 6 months look like?

(By-elections were not easy for the NDP in the 1990s. In the Matsqui by-election of 1994, the NDP nominated a witch.  The witch did not make it to the ballot).

The BC Liberals had their problems with by-elections too.  Despite being relatively steady in the polls, the BC Liberals lost a relatively safe seat in Coquitlam – Burke Mountain in a 2016 by-election  (a harbinger of things to come).  In 2012, during a time of trouble and turmoil early in her premiership, Christy Clark’s government lost two BC Liberal seats, in Port Moody and Chilliwack-Hope.  Chilliwack-Hope was truly a safe seat yet voters soundly rejected the government.  Is Horgan’s government in the glue as much as Christy Clark’s government was in 2012? No.  Not even close.  But the 2016 example should give them pause for thought.

Since 1981, there have been twelve by-elections were the government defended its seat and government’s record is 2 wins, 10 losses.  Or more precisely, it’s 2 wins for candidate Christy Clark, and 10 wins for the NDP Opposition, which won five by-elections against the Social Credit government between 1984-1989, and five against the BC Liberals between 2004-2016.

Table 1: BC by-elections since 1981 in government held seats

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The average swing against the incumbent government of the day since 1981 is 26%, ranging from a massive 59% swing in Surrey-Panorama in 2004 to a 6 point swing in favour of the government in the by-election that elected Premier Christy Clark in Westside-Kelowna in 2013, the only example where the government improved its position.

Since 2008, leaving Christy Clark out of it, the swings range from 14% to 36%.

The high-stakes Point Grey by-election of 2011, won by Christy Clark, had a 7% swing against the BC Liberal government.  In hindsight, it was a very risky move to run there.

The swing that is needed for the BC Liberals to win Nanaimo is 15%.

Therefore, the swing required for the BC Liberals to win Nanaimo is on the low end of the spectrum.

If I was an NDP strategist, I would be a little nervous about this.  The BC Liberals will be fired up for this opportunity.  There will be no shortage of volunteers and money.  If the free enterprise base can’t be motivated for a high-stakes by-election like this, then the Party has a deeper problem.  I suspect they will rally to support the local campaign, even if the odds are against them.

Finally, it comes down to candidates.  Candidates make a big difference in a local campaign.  Take Leonard away and the NDP lose support.  There is likely not a candidate who is as strong as Leonard available to the NDP.

The BC Liberals must consider carefully their approach too.  This is an opportunity and the Party should be beating the bushes, talking to local members and identifying a range of potential candidates.

The Greens say they will run a candidate.  They improved their vote in 2017 at no consequence to the NDP.  They were also a serious contender in the 2015 federal election in Nanaimo.

As of today, victory still looks like a tall order for the BC Liberals, but not impossible.  I estimate, with my gut, that the BC Liberals have a 20% chance of victory.  That’s worth fighting for, given the stakes, and given the history of swings against governments in by-elections.

Politics is full of surprises – who would have thought Rachel Notley, Justin Trudeau, Donald Trump, and Doug Ford would be where they are today?  Not to mention John Horgan – he didn’t look like a likely prospect 6-12 months before the election.

The NDP sounded confident in the Province newspaper on Sunday.  “We’re very confident we would win that by-election,” said an NDP official.

Free advice: don’t take the voters for granted.

Especially ones that travel by bathtub.♦

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Ben there, done that

Ben Stewart made way for Premier Christy Clark in 2013 and, last night, the voters of Kelowna West returned him to the BC Legislature to continue his career as MLA.

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Kelowna West MLA-elect Ben Stewart.

Someone had to open up a seat for Premier Christy Clark in 2013 when she was unseated in Vancouver-Pt. Grey despite winning a majority government.  Ben stepped up and, now, he has returned to where he has always truly wanted to be – serving his constituents in the BC Legislature.

Making way for defeated leaders has happened from time to time throughout Canadian history.  Canada’s longest serving prime minister, Rt. Hon. William Lyon Mackenzie King, lost his seat in York North in 1925.  A seat was made available in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan in 1926 which he won.  He stayed put in Prince Albert until 1945 when he lost his seat again and returned to run in a by-election in Glengarry, Ontario for his final term.  During that 19 year stretch in Prince Albert, he even managed to defeat a young, upstart named John Diefenbaker (the only time two people who served as prime ministers faced each other in an election?).

Ben Stewart’s resignation and return is not the first time this has happened in modern BC political times.  In 1975, NDP Premier Dave Barrett rushed to an election, in part to head off the revival of the Social Credit Party under Bill Bennett.  It didn’t work.  Bennett rallied the forces opposed to the NDP and vanquished the Barrett government, including Barrett himself who lost his seat in Coquitlam to Socred George Kerster by 18 votes.  Vancouver East MLA Bob Williams made way for Barrett, triggering a 1976 by-election that Barrett easily won.  After Barrett’s third successive defeat to Bennett in 1983, he retired and returned the seat to Bob Williams who was elected in a 1984 by-election. Williams had the additional task of fending off newly elected BC Liberal leader Art Lee, the first and only Chinese Canadian political leader of a major party in BC history.  Williams easily won and served until 1991.

As for the significance of the Kelowna-West by-election, here are the results for the last four times those voters went to the polls:

Table 1: Westside-Kelowna (2013) and Kelowna West (2017-8) results

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The 2017 by-election was the first time in four elections since 2013 (two by-elections and two general elections) that four parties had contested the seat.  (The name of the riding changed but the boundaries are identical).

No one party can claim any type of breakthrough.   The BC Liberals held their support, and given that there were two minor parties this time, losing a couple of points compared to previous efforts was bound to happen. (The final by-election results will not be available for a couple of weeks as Section 98-106 votes have not yet been counted.  It likely won’t change much.)

The NDP have slid in the riding since the 2013 general election, which reflects the move away from the NDP in the Interior in the 2017 election, but moreso, it’s the impact of the Greens showing up on the ballot in 2017 and 2018, splitting their vote a bit.  I wouldn’t be too fussed by this result if I was John Horgan.  They didn’t expect to win this and, in the 1990s, when they were deeply unpopular, they would be obliterated in such by-elections.   That wasn’t the case here.

The BC Conservatives returned to the ballot in the 2018 by-election but had a very similar result to the 2013 by-election and much less than 2013 general election.  In 1973, the BC Conservatives had stress tested the then Coalition party (the Socreds) in a by-election in South Okanagan to replace the retiring WAC Bennett.  BC Conservative leader Derrill Warren challenged WAC’s son, Bill Bennett.  The younger Bennett (39%) defeated Warren (24%), settling the issue.  This was significant as, arguably, Warren’s performance in the 1972 general election was a key factor in defeating the Socred government and electing the NDP.  After the ’73 by-election, Warren left BC politics, senior Conservatives joined the Socreds, and Bennett went on to be premier.  The Kelowna West by-election yesterday was decidedly uneventful by comparison.

It’s the Greens that should be down in the mouth.  Despite the controversy over the PipeWine dispute, the NDP held its second place standing comfortably over the bronze Greens.  If anything, it may show that as long as the NDP and Greens are in cahoots, it will be difficult for the Greens to make a relative gain against their Coalition partners.  Maybe they’re happy playing second fiddle.

For new BC Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson, he gets a win under his belt, even if it was gift-wrapped.  His team is back to 42 seats in the Legislature with no nasty surprises.

The Trudeau Liberals unwrap a new seat

Monday’s by-elections can be viewed as a win for the governing Liberals.  They held two seats and won a third from the Conservatives.  In answer to my November 20th post, the voters in South Surrey-White Rock gave like Santa to the Liberals and passed out votes like Scrooge to the Conservatives.

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That present is from South Surrey-White Rock

By-elections are a great opportunity to send a message.  If the government is screwing up, why not vote against them and shake it up?  Evidently, there’s not a lot of voter anger in South Surrey-White Rock.

In Monday’s by-elections, the only riding where the Liberal popular vote actually went up was South Surrey-White Rock, which was the only place the Conservative vote went down.

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Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives can take some consolation that they reduced the margin-of-victory in Scarborough-Agincourt from 13.9% to 8.9%, and they scraped themselves off the basement floor in Newfoundland, though they haven’t found the stairs yet.  In Saskatchewan, like Alberta, they ran up the score, which is nice, but not very meaningful.  As for the Liberals, I doubt they are too concerned about the ridings where they slipped.  In all three cases, the result looked inevitable, and tough to motivate voters in that case.

South Surrey-White Rock should sting a bit for the Conservatives.  This was a safe seat in 2011 and for decades before that.  In 2011, a backbench Conservative MP edged the Liberal 53% to 19%.  That’s a remarkable turnaround in six years.

The notion of a Liberal win was unthinkable in the summer of 2015.  Liberal strategists had a hard time believing the numbers they were seeing from that riding, against Dianne Watts no less.  They almost beat her despite sacking their candidate halfway through the campaign.  The Liberals had no history of winning there.  They couldn’t even win in Surrey during Trudeaumania I when they took two-thirds of the seats in BC – and the Liberal candidate was “nursery man” Bill Vander Zalm.  Trudeaumania plus the Zalm?  How could they lose?

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So, there has been a change in South Surrey-White Rock and it remains to be seen if it will be a sea change.   Liberals may have a bit of deja vu when it comes to winning federal by-elections in BC.  In 1998, a Reform MP resigned in Port Moody-Coquitlam and, very similar to South Surrey-White Rock, the Liberals ran a popular mayor, Lou Sekora, while the Reform Party ran a parachute candidate from Langley.  Sekora won in a riding the Liberals had not held in a long, long time.  In 2000, a young whippersnapper by the name of James Moore defeated Sekora and went on to hold the seat for 15 years.

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Lou Sekora: lost to a young whippersnapper

Let’s not forget about the NDP.  In Monday’s by-elections, their share of vote dropped in all four races.  While none of these seats were NDP targets, they certainly did not demonstrate any grassroots enthusiasm for the new NDP leader.

Congratulations to Gordie Hogg and the Liberals.  We’ll see if success in South Surrey-White Rock is fleeting or not.  Andrew Scheer and the Conservatives did not collapse, on the contrary, they made some incremental progress.  But where it mattered, they could not rally their base to withstand a vigorous effort by the Liberals.  Now that the government is in the back nine of its mandate and showing its resilience, Scheer will not be able to count on the government losing the election – he will have to try to find a way to win it.  A tall order for any Opposition.

Tonight’s by-elections will be indicator of Trudeau government’s resilience

There have been seven by-elections in Canada in 2017 so far, with four more to come today (December 11th), including a hotly contested race in South Surrey-White Rock.

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Will Justin Trudeau and Gordie Hogg be cheering tonight?

Are there any trends?  Any signs that may predict outcomes tonight?

First, you have to look at Alberta separately.  Three Conservative titans resigned their seats – Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper, Hon. Jason Kenney, and Hon. Rona Ambrose.  One might think the loss of those candidates would depress results in a subsequent election.  Wrong. The Conservatives scored over 70% in each seat, surpassing already strong 2015 numbers.

Conservative vote in Alberta byelections
2015 2017 DIFF
Calgary-Midnapore 66.7% 77.2% 1.16
Calgary-Heritage 63.8% 71.5% 1.12
Sturgeon River-Parkland 70.2% 77.4% 1.10

Moving on to Quebec where there have been two by-elections, it’s a very different story.  The Liberal Party held most of its vote in St. Laurent (Stephane Dion’s seat), and in October, doubled its vote in Lac St. Jean to take a Conservative seat held by Denis Lebel.  Unlike Alberta where support for the Blues was amped up, les bleus went the other way in Lac St. Jean, dropping from 33.3% to 25.0%.  Les oranges dropped in Lac St. Jean from 28.5% and second place to 11.7% and fourth.

Liberal vote in Quebec byelections
2015 2017 DIFF
St. Laurent 61.6% 59.1% 0.96
Lac St. Jean 18.4% 38.6% 2.10

Finally, there were two by-elections in Ontario in 2017.  In both cases, the Liberals only retained about 90% of their 2015 vote, but nevertheless held a majority.

Liberal vote in Ontario byelections
 2015  2017  DIFF
Ottawa Vanier 57.6% 51.3% 0.89
Markham-Thornhill 55.7% 51.4% 0.92

Overall, it’s a pretty good result for the governing Liberals thus far.  Holding on to their own seats while taking one in Quebec from the Conservatives.  Running up the scoreboard in Alberta does little for the Conservatives.  Their numbers in the 2015 election were already through the roof – the Harper Conservatives had 375,000 more votes than the provincial PCs and Wildrose combined.  The Conservatives are in danger of becoming ‘Alberta Island’ if its numbers drop in the rest of Canada but increase in Alberta.

Here are the 2015 election results for the four by-elections:

2015 results LIB CPC NDP
Bonavista-Burin-Trinity 81.8% 10.1% 7.3%
Scarborough-Agincourt 51.9% 38.0% 7.9%
Battlefords-Lloydminster 16.5% 61.0% 17.6%
South Surrey-White Rock 41.5% 44.0% 10.4%

Bonavista and Battlefords both appear very comfortable for the Liberals and Conservatives respectively.  It will be interesting to see if Battlefords-Lloydminster follows a similar pattern as the Alberta by-elections.

Scarborough-Agincourt is tighter and will be the first real test of Jagmeet Singh and whether he has any game in the Toronto outskirts.  You would think the NDP could do better than 7.9%.  That could help Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives, and a win there would be huge, but they are certainly downplaying expectations.

I looked at South Surrey-White Rock in detail a few weeks ago.  A strong candidate for the Liberals and lesser-known candidate for the Conservatives is the reverse scenario compared to the 2015 election.  With a thin margin, the Liberals could prevail this time on the candidate match-up alone – everything being equal.  Two years into a mandate, you would think this would be a vulnerable time for any government.  Given the prolonged controversy over small business taxation in the summer and early fall, one might also think that that issue would hurt the Liberals in the upper-income, professional enclave of South Surrey-White Rock.  We won’t know until the polls close if it did – and if Hogg does win, one can ask, “What was that all about?” – a big national issue that had no teeth.

I was surprised that the Conservatives reached back to 1993 to attack Hogg on an issue that had been dealt with conclusively in his provincial by-election win in 1997, when his main opponent was a BC Reform candidate.  That appeared to be the move of a campaign running out of steam.

A Liberal win tonight in BC – and in Scarborough – will be an impressive show of strength by a mid-term government.  Not a guarantee of future success, but a sign of resilience, and an indicator of the magnitude of the challenge facing Andrew Scheer.  His pathway to winning the next election will be made more difficult not by the actual reality of a by-election loss, but by the perception of that loss among his own supporters (I’ve been there).  He’s going to have to demonstrate how he can build his party’s market share beyond Alberta and its diminishing strongholds across the country.  But hey, low expectations can be very beneficial (I’ve been there too).

Jagmeet Singh will also take away some lessons tonight.  He hasn’t been on the job long, but he did enjoy considerable positive publicity in the lead up to his election.  Can he translate that into votes?  You would think the NDP should get a little bump with Singh in place.

Tonight’s results will be another marker on the road to 2019 and, so far, the electoral road has looked fairly smooth for the Trudeau Liberals.

Will voters be in a giving mood in South Surrey-White Rock by-election?

A federal by-election has been called for December 11th in South Surrey-White Rock, which will provide an interesting read of the political thermometer two years out from a general election.

Traditionally, this area has been inhospitable to Liberals.  In fact, I can’t remember the last time the South Surrey-White Rock area had a federal Liberal MP – not in my lifetime.  They took a pass on Trudeaumania (and candidate Bill Vander Zalm!) in 1968, electing an NDPer. At that time, Surrey and White Rock were encompassed in one riding – how times have changed.  Since 1974, the Conservatives have owned the riding.  Voters were Scrooge-like toward my old friend Reni Masi (later elected as MLA) who ran twice as a Grit in the area, but gave like Santa when it came to voting for Progressive Conservative Benno Friesen.

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On December 11th, will South Surrey-White Rock voters continue to be Scrooge-like toward the Liberals?  Or give like Santa?

Gordie Hogg tried in 1993, unsuccessfully, as a Chretien Liberal, losing to upstart Reformer Val Meredith.  MLA Wilf Hurd resigned his seat to try it on as a Fed Lib in 1997 and lost; Hogg then took Hurd’s seat in the Legislature and served for 20 years.

Will this time be different?  After a brief two-year stint in Ottawa, Conservative Dianne Watts resigned her seat to contest the BC Liberal leadership.  If successful in her quest, she will be on a very short list of people who have served as Mayor, MP, and MLA.  In the meantime, Gordie Hogg may do the same if elected on December 11th, becoming the first to do so since (I think) Gerry McGeer, the former mayor of Vancouver, who accomplished that feat, plus senator.

The Liberals are bullish and must be encouraged by not only Hogg’s candidacy, but a strong turnout for PM Justin Trudeau last week in White Rock.

Let’s take a look at 2011 and 2015 numbers for BC and  South Surrey-White Rock:

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The Conservatives hung on in 2015 – barely.  Despite Dianne Watts’ profile as longtime mayor of Surrey, the Conservative vote dropped from 52.9% to 44%.  Taking a closer look, however, it appears that Watts ran ahead of the curve, salvaging the seat.  In 2011, the Conservatives ran 1.16X the BC popular vote, whereas in 2015, they were 1.47X ahead.

The Liberals were shot out of a cannon in 2015 compared to 2011.  The Liberal vote in BC increased 2.63X, but in South Surrey-White Rock, the gain was only 2.18X.  Had the trend been replicated there, Judy Higginbotham would be the MP.  There are extenuating circumstances – Judy wasn’t supposed to be on the ballot.  The longtime Liberal warrior jumped in when the initial candidate was ejected mid-campaign for a since-forgotten gaffe.  Arguably, the Conservatives benefited from that bit of luck.  At the outset of the campaign, it must have looked like they would cruise to victory with Watts and, by the end, they were in an unexpected fight of their life.  It’s one of the few toe-holds they have left in Metro Vancouver.

With the Liberals leading the Conservatives by about five points in the BC popular vote in 2015 but losing this seat, it stands to reason that the Liberals need to be as popular relative to the Conservatives in BC now in order to win the by-election, and trust that Gordie Hogg’s profile in the area lifts them a few additional points over former MP Kerry-Lynne Findlay, who has parachuted in.

The NDP is not a factor here.  I’m sure that strategists at Big Orange are devising ways to drive up Justin’s negatives in the by-election to aid the election of a Conservative.

The latest public polls (caveat emptor) are contradictory regarding federal party standings in BC.   Angus Reid has a four-point CPC lead; Nanos has a six-point Liberal lead; and Abacus has an 11-point Liberal lead.

Then there is turnout.  The 2015 general election had a 75% turnout.  It was a high turnout election to begin with, but in South Surrey-White Rock, they have voting circled in their calendars – it’s an event.   I would expect a drop in turnout like any by-election but not as steep a drop as other places.  Older people will disproportionately vote in a by-election compared to a general election (I have no data at my fingertips to back up this claim, but I think it’s true).  That should give the Conservatives a bit of help.

The Upshot:

The Conservatives had a stronger candidate in 2015 relative to 2011, and the Liberals had candidate trouble.  The Conservatives over-performed; Liberals under-performed.

The Liberals have recruited a strong candidate in 2017; the Conservatives have a good candidate but she is not personally well-known in the riding.  Advantage: Liberals.

The atmosphere in BC is the wildcard.  The Conservatives have a new leader in Andrew Scheer – are they better or worse off than 2015?  Likely worse off as Scheer is not very well-known or defined.  CPC has to make the by-election ballot question about the Liberals and Trudeau, not about local representation.

To that end, just how damaging are the Morneau-small business tax changes?  This riding should feel this issue more than most – it’s full of upper income, white collar professionals with a small ‘c’ conservative tilt.  Many of the people who voted Liberal last time in South Surrey-White Rock are the type of voters that Scheer needs to attract.  If anything, this by-election is a litmus test as to whether that issue – which dominated federal political headlines in August-September, has any teeth at the ballot box.

In three weeks, we’ll know if the voters are feeling like Santa or Scrooge when it comes to the mid-term government.  For the Liberals, this is a seat they never win so they have little to lose so long as they manage expectations.   For the Conservatives, it will be tough loss for a new leader, on the heels of losing a Quebec seat to the Liberals recently, though also an opportunity for momentum for a new leader trying to get established.  Right now, the Conservatives look like they have their work cut out for them.