Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Political diviners at work

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There are many ways to read the tea leaves from the four federal byelections Monday, but fortune tellers would be wise to avoid divining the future based on Tuesday's results.

The immediate impression was Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau emerged the victor because the party retained its two seats, while dramatically increasing its share of the popular vote across all four.

Of course, the Conservative party also retained its two seats, but its share of the popular vote declined in the four ridings.

The Liberals finished second in both Provencher and Brandon-Souris, where Liberal Rolf Dinsdale came within a whisker of knocking off Conservative Larry Maguire.

In fact, the factors favouring the Liberals in Brandon were so strong, it's fair to ask why they did not win.

Mr. Maguire was not a particularly inspiring candidate, and he suffered an immediate setback following a quarrel over the nomination, which some Conservatives felt he earned unfairly without a contest.

He was criticized repeatedly (and justifiably) for ducking candidate forums, which was perhaps understandable given his party's troubles over the Senate scandals.

His opponent was also bolstered by three visits to the riding by Mr. Trudeau, a popular figure wherever he goes.

A poll also showed Mr. Dinsdale with a huge lead. The survey's sample size and methodology made it unreliable, but the headlines nevertheless predicted an outcome that likely influenced some voters.

The unpopularity of the Manitoba NDP over the PST increase also favoured the Liberals, as evidenced by the complete collapse of NDP support in the riding.

The diviners, then, were justified in anticipating a Liberal victory in Brandon, but as Free Press columnist Deveryn Ross explains on the page opposite, the Grits were defeated, in part, by their own machinations and political missteps.

It was an enormous lost opportunity, since a victory in Brandon-Souris would have represented a crushing defeat for the Conservatives at the hands of Mr. Trudeau. It could have demoralized Tories and emboldened Liberal supporters everywhere, while providing fodder for renewed assaults on Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

As for the New Democrats, they finished a respectable second in Toronto Centre and in the Quebec riding of Bourassa. Like the Conservatives, however, their popular support fell in each of the four ridings.

They had finished second in both Provencher and Brandon in 2011, but their support crumbled to single digits in the byelections.

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair is perhaps the only clear loser, since he cannot point to a single positive outcome from the four contests. Polls have also shown his party is stuck in third place behind the Liberals nationally, although the NDP remain strong in Quebec.

The results make it even clearer that Manitoba's new Liberal leader, Rana Bokhari, should run in either the Morris (Provencher) or Arthur-Virden (Brandon-Souris) provincial byelections, where she likely would finish second at worst.

It would provide valuable exposure and experience that could help establish the Liberals as a viable third option for Manitoba voters.

Even though it's possible to identify winners and losers in the four races, it's harder to define all the causes.

Popular wisdom, for example, says the decline in the Tory popular vote can be attributed to the Senate scandal.

It's certainly possible, but it's equally likely some Canadians have become disenchanted with Mr. Harper's tin ear for public relations and his reputation as a micro-manager and control freak.

It's also possible Mr. Trudeau's charismatic personality has simply charmed voters -- for now.

The tea leaves, unfortunately, don't offer much certainty on what to expect in 2015.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Gerald Flood, Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 27, 2013 A10

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