Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Victory celebration fleeting for Tories

Lack of a convincing win not a good sign leading up to 2015

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Liberal candidate Chrystia Freeland celebrates after winning  the federal byelection in Toronto Centre on Monday.

CHRIS YOUNG / THE CANADIAN PRESS Enlarge Image

Liberal candidate Chrystia Freeland celebrates after winning the federal byelection in Toronto Centre on Monday.

For most of the night, it was too close to call. But for the Conservative government, a close result, even if it was a close win, was still a bad result indeed.

Concerns about pre-vote polls notwithstanding, the remarkably strong showing by the Liberals in Brandon-Souris Monday night seems to have all the characteristics of a clear and somewhat alarming message for the federal Conservative government.

If there was an election that deserved to be called a horse race, this was it.

Tory candidate Larry Maguire, who appeared destined to maintain his lead over Grit challenger Rolf Dinsdale, will be a good MP for Brandon-Souris and for Manitoba. However, the near-death experience having been avoided, it won't take long for Maguire's political masters to go from celebrating the victory to trying to figure out why it was so slim. Rocked by scandal and losing a publicity war with Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, the Tories needed a convincing win. This wasn't it.

In a seat that has only voted Liberal once in more than 50 years, this should have been a cakewalk. The neck-and-neck race suggests that worms may be turning across Canada for the Conservative government less than two years before a 2015 fixed-date election.

In a seat that has only voted Liberal once in more than 50 years, this should have been a cakewalk

What was the issue that inspired Brandon-Souris voters to come out and support the Liberals in numbers not seen for more than a decade?

Was this a protest against the Senate expenses crisis, which has now drawn Harper into its sticky tentacles? Or perhaps voters in this Manitoba riding were expressing an infatuation for Trudeau, what with his youthful good looks and affinity for controlled substances.

There were also many local wild cards in play. Remember that Tory MP Merv Tweed, whose resignation triggered this byelection, was repeatedly overlooked for cabinet promotions. Westman voters could very well have been disillusioned at being left out of the government's inner circle.

Then there was the rather unfortunate controversy that saw Tweed's longtime executive assistant, Chris Kennedy, excluded from running for the nomination. It later turned out Kennedy has simply missed the deadline for submitting his papers.

Then there is Dinsdale himself. After a successful career as a media executive in Toronto, he returned to his home province and the riding his father, Walter, represented in the House of Commons for more than 30 years.

Although his critics tried to portray Dinsdale as a carpetbagger, his family continued to have deep roots in the riding. And many of those roots extended into Conservative households.

Thankfully for hardcore politicos, Brandon-Souris lived up to its billing as a hotly contested seat. The others did not.

Montreal's Bourassa riding, a Liberal hold, was done early, as was Manitoba's Provencher riding, where Tory Ted Falk won handily.

No one really expected an upset in Provencher, where the aquifer runs deep Tory blue. That is not to say Falk didn't do his best to screw up one of the safest Tory seats in Western Canada. Apparently, not even a personal attack against a gay high school student who lobbied to create a gay-straight alliance at a Steinbach high school could create an upset.

However, even in Provencher, the Liberals showed well, running a respectable second. Along with the Brandon-Souris result, there is much to celebrate for Liberals. After all, this is a party that did not receive enough votes in 2011 in either riding to qualify for federal election-expenses subsidies.

The Liberals will be, for the foreseeable future, crowing about their two holds in Toronto and Montreal, the moral victory in Provencher and the near-upset in Brandon-Souris. When they do that, it is important to remember that, all factors considered, it is so very hard to find a clear message in a byelection because voter turnout is low.

One would think that with some of the strong narratives running through federal politics -- the Senate expenses scandal, the rocky and sometimes controversial start to Justin Trudeau's leadership of the Liberal party, the volatile national poll results -- voters might have felt compelled to get involved.

Not a chance. Voter turnout in Bourassa was just over 25 per cent. In Toronto Centre it was less than 30 per cent. Provencher was only slightly higher at about 33 per cent.

Tories will take some comfort from that fact alone as they try to make sense of the messy events of Monday night.

Deep in their hearts, they know a win is a win is a win. But in the case of Brandon-Souris, the lack of a convincing win is a problem in and of itself.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 26, 2013 A11

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