Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Trudeau has most to lose in byelections

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BRANDON -- There comes a point in politics where you have to deliver on the hype and expectations. Now is that time for Justin Trudeau.

Though Liberal Yvonne Jones coasted to an easy byelection victory over scandal-plagued incumbent Tory Peter Penashue in Labrador last May, the upcoming contests in Bourassa, Toronto Centre, Provencher and Brandon-Souris pose far tougher tests for the new Liberal leader, for a variety of reasons.

In Bourassa, the Liberals are seeking to hold the seat vacated by multi-term incumbent Denis Coderre, who resigned in order to run for mayor of Montreal. Though the popular Coderre withstood the orange wave of NDP support that swamped Quebec in the 2011 election, winning by slightly more than 3,000 votes over the NDP candidate, it is an open question as to how many of those votes were cast for the candidate personally, as opposed to the Liberal party.

The same question can be asked in the Liberal bastion of Toronto Centre, where former Ontario premier Bob Rae defeated the NDP candidate by 6,000 votes in 2011.

Provencher and Brandon-Souris are two of the safest Conservative seats in the country. In the former, Vic Toews defeated the second-place New Democrat in 2011 by more than 20,000 votes. In the latter, Merv Tweed's margin of victory was 13,541 votes. The Liberals finished a distant third in Provencher, and fourth in Brandon-Souris.

From the 2004 to 2011 elections, voter support for the Liberals in Provencher plummeted by 71 per cent. The numbers are even worse in Brandon-Souris, where the Liberals received 79 per cent fewer votes in 2011 than they received in 2004.

With all of that in mind, it is obvious that there is more risk in the four byelections for the Liberals than for the NDP, and far more than for the Harper Conservatives.

There is no downside for the Tories. They have no chance of winning in Bourassa and Toronto Centre, and virtually no chance of losing in Provencher and Brandon-Souris. Even if voter support declines, they can plausibly argue that byelections cater to protest votes, and that nobody should be surprised if new candidates cannot match popular incumbents in vote totals.

For the NDP, a victory in either Bourassa or Toronto Centre -- and they will spare no effort in either riding -- would be a huge coup. A significant decline in support in either riding, however, would fuel additional doubt about the party's claim that it is a government in waiting.

While a gain in support in the two Manitoba ridings could be spun as evidence of an NDP resurgence on the Prairies, any decline can be blamed on the actions of the unpopular Selinger government.

For Trudeau's Liberals, the four byelections are all-risk, with very little hope of reward beyond maintaining the status quo.

Just as the Liberals' 2007 byelection loss of the Outremont riding to the NDP Thomas Mulcair was a fatal blow for Stephane Dion, a loss of either Bourassa and Toronto Centre would be very damaging for Trudeau, as it would shred expectations about his ability to bring voters back to the party. The expectations for Trudeau are so high that questions may even arise if the Liberals cannot increase the margins of victory over the New Democrats in the two ridings.

Trudeau's "expectations problem" is only slightly different in Provencher and Brandon-Souris. Nobody expects the Liberals to win, but a failure to recruit viable candidates and show tangible growth in support in both ridings would raise doubts about his attractiveness to western Canadian voters.

The problem with selling yourself as a winner is that you must eventually deliver the goods; you have to win. Justin Trudeau has been so heavily sold as the leader with the skills, knowledge and charisma necessary to restore the Liberal Party to electoral success that there is no room for a setback.

The four byelections represent a trap for the Liberals. If they win in Bourassa and Toronto Centre, and increase their support in Provencher and Brandon-Souris, the response will in all likelihood be a shrug because that is what Canadians expect from Trudeau.

If the Liberals lose either Bourassa or Toronto Centre, however, or lose support in Provencher and Brandon-Souris, Trudeaumania 2.0 could be over before it ever started.


Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 15, 2013 A13

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