Jul 072013
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The Ontario byelections: harbingers or just five small potatoes?

by Geoffrey Stevens

Byelections can be a really big deal — or they can be small potatoes. They can mean everything, or nothing. They can be a harbinger, or a footnote.

Readers of a certain age will remember Oct 16, 1978. That’s the day when Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals fought no fewer than 15 federal byelections, from British Columbia to Newfoundland — with disastrous results. The Liberals had been planning to call a general election earlier in 1978. But Trudeau had been in power for 10 years, the land was restless, and the polls were bleak.  So Trudeau stalled and stalled. Finally, with 15 empty seats in the Commons, he had to call the byelections.

Now Premier Kathleen Wynne faces her own byelection challenges with five vacancies to be filled across the province, from Windsor to Ottawa, on August 1.

The outcome was a harbinger of events to come. The Liberals managed to win just two of the byelections, both in their fortress Quebec. The three opposition parties took the other 13, with the Progressive Conservatives, under Joe Clark, winning 10. Seven months later, Trudeau was out and Clark was prime minister (albeit briefly in both cases).

To move from the archives to the near-present, the Ontario provincial byelection in Kitchener-Waterloo on Sept 6, 2012, was also a really big deal. Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals had gone into the provincial election the year before with a majority government. They came out of it one seat shy of a third consecutive majority. McGuinty was suddenly vulnerable.

But then Elizabeth Witmer, the long-serving Conservative member for Kitchener-Waterloo, resigned to accept a patronage appointment from McGuinty. The ensuing byelection was a big potato. Had the Liberals won, they would have gained the seat they desperately needed to recover their majority, and McGuinty could have revived his political life. Chances are he would still be premier today.

It was not to be. New Democrat Catherine Fife won the seat handily as enthusiastic NDP volunteers flooded the riding. The Liberal candidate finished a distant third. One month later, McGuinty announced his retirement, and four months after that Kathleen Wynne was premier of Ontario.

Now Wynne faces her own byelection challenges with five vacancies to be filled across the province, from Windsor to Ottawa, on August 1.  I think these are five small potatoes. To start with, all five seats were held by Liberals in the 2011 election. If Wynne wins all five, she will still have a minority government. If she loses all five, she will still have her minority. Either way, she will govern at the pleasure of Andrea Horwath and the NDP.

Everyone anticipates the Liberals will lose Dwight Duncan’s seat, Windsor-Tecumseh to the NDP.  My hunch is the Liberals will hold three of the remaining four seats.

Expectations are manageable. Everyone anticipates the Liberals will lose former finance minister Dwight Duncan’s seat, Windsor-Tecumseh; the NDP is probably too strong there. My hunch is the Liberals will hold three of the remaining four (including Ottawa South, McGuinty’s old seat, and Etobicoke-Lakeshore, where the Conservative candidacy of Toronto’s deputy mayor, Doug Holyday, is being heavily hyped).  

The possible exception is London West, the seat held by Liberal energy minister Chris Bentley. The Liberals seem to have messed up their nomination, and the Tories can taste an upset. But watch the NDP’s Peggy Sattler, a school trustee. The New Democrats doubled their vote in the 2011 election, while the other parties were treading water, and they appear to have momentum as the byelection begins.

The popular vote will be as revealing as the wins and losses in the five races. If the opinion polls are any guide (and one would want to be wary after Alberta and British Columbia), Ontarians are slowly responding to Wynne’s cautious, non-ideological approach to public policy and issues, while Tory leader Tim Hudak comes across as a prisoner of his own too-strident rhetoric. (He would be so much more appealing if he could chill a little.)

Wynne’s albatross continues to be Dalton McGuinty and his hydro plants and other scandals. The five byelections will not slay the albatross (it would take a general election to do that), but they could diminish the beast by underscoring that McGuinty is gone and Wynne is in charge in Ontario.

About Geoffrey Stevens

Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. He welcomes comments at the address below. This article appeared in the Waterloo Region Record and the Guelph Mercury.

© Copyright 2013 Geoffrey Stevens, All rights Reserved. Written For: StraightGoods.ca

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