Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Byelection voters can send message

Party in power may get unexpected shock

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There is no getting around the fact the byelection is the ugly cousin of electoral events.

It is a homely, lonely creature, loved only by hardcore politicos and rabid partisans. For voters, byelections seem to rank somewhere between a trip to the dentist and jury duty.

That's a damn shame, because byelections are still important. Sometimes a legislative majority can hang in the balance. Or a byelection can be a litmus test for governing parties, an early warning sign they have worn out their welcome.

There have been some historic byelection upsets. In 1989, Deborah Grey, the Reform party's first MP, was elected in a byelection. The next year, Gilles Duceppe won a byelection to become the first Bloc Québécois MP. In both instances, the votes signalled seismic shifts in our political landscape.

Tonight, the ugly cousins are out in force, vying desperately for our attention. Four byelections will be decided in three provinces.

At first blush, these votes have little potential to make history. The two Manitoba seats, Brandon-Souris and Provencher, are rock-solid Tory ridings. The other two seats -- Toronto Centre and Montreal's Bourassa riding -- are equally safe Liberal seats. The results will have no impact on the balance of power in the House of Commons.

Still, pundits believe these votes -- particularly those in Manitoba -- could serve as important tests of public sentiment outside the national capital.

In many ways, it is a shame more people don't see the opportunity byelections present.

Voter turnout in general elections is usually around 60 per cent; byelections tend to draw roughly half of those voters. That means only 15 per cent of all voters can decide a byelection.

That math raises an obvious question: Why don't more parties steal seats in byelections?

Incumbent parties do not always hold on to vacated seats. Sometimes, a seat will become available at a time when the party is at a low mark in support and unable to properly defend its turf. Far more rare is the bona fide upset, where a challenger goes out and snatches an allegedly safe seat.

That nearly happened last year in Calgary Centre, a Tory seat for the last 50 years. Tory Lee Richardson won the 2011 general election with a gaudy plurality. However, Richardson resigned his seat a year later to take a position with Alberta Premier Alison Redford's government.

Tory candidate Joan Crockett managed about 10,000 votes, 11 per cent of all registered voters and only one-third of the 28,000 votes Richardson mustered just a year earlier. The Liberals increased their vote haul from 2011. Grit candidate Harvey Locke got just over 9,000 votes, throwing a scare into the Harper Tories in the process.

The Liberals fell just short of an upset, but the message was clear: Byelections are a prime opportunity to steal otherwise safe seats.

The Liberals would like us to believe Brandon-Souris is an upset in the making. A solid federal Tory property, the riding has rarely shown an interest in non-Conservative candidates.

Pre-vote polls suggest conditions may be ripe for a Liberal steal. The Grits nominated Rolf Dinsdale, a successful media executive whose father, Walter, was an 11-term Tory MP for the area. The Tories have veteran provincial MLA Larry Maguire. He is, however, the man who lost this riding to the Liberals in the 1993 federal election.

Polls notwithstanding, this is a steep hill for the Liberals. The party ran fourth, behind the Greens, in 2011. The Grits haven't been competitive in this riding in nearly a decade.

The Liberals certainly think this seat is up for grabs. Leader Justin Trudeau has been to Brandon three times, and the Grits are spending significant sums on advertising. Even with that full-court press, the Tories do not appear worried.

Maguire has been nearly invisible during the campaign, avoiding both the media and voters by skipping forums and debates. This is a front-runner strategy, a clear sign the Tories believe enough of their core supporters will show up to win in a low-turnout vote.

If there is hope here for the Liberals, it is found in the timing. The Harper Conservatives are wobbling under the weight of the Senate expense scandal, while the Liberals, under Trudeau's leadership, are on the upswing. Those factors alone will not produce a Liberal win, but it creates opportunity.

If byelection trends continue, you might expect somewhere in the neighbourhood of 10,000 to 12,000 votes cast for Maguire. Although the Liberals have not captured that many votes since 1993, they at least have a target. If they can identify and lure out more than 10,000 voters, this one's going to be close. A loss, if you can imagine it, would be a significant setback for Harper, and a sign that previously safe seats are up for play in other provinces.

Byelections may be pretty ugly, but they can be opportunities for drama under the right circumstances.

All it takes is enough people to remember voting is actually less painful than the dentist and takes less time than jury duty.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 25, 2013 A4

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