Five byelections will be first real test for Liberal government

0 Comments 28 March 2017

Ottawa-Vanier has never voted anything but Grit. However, large margins have a way of evaporating in by-elections where voters can register dissatisfaction without turfing a government. That is what makes byelections so tricky.


First published in The Hill Times on Monday, February 27, 2017.

OTTAWA—Five byelections across three provinces will be the first real test for the Liberal government.

With vacancies in former Liberal ridings, the pressure will be on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to grow his majority.

Whatever happens, the outcome will likely result in a rise in diversity, as all ridings were formerly held by white men and several byelection frontrunners are women.

At the moment, the Liberal nominee in the riding of Ottawa-Vanier, appears to have the edge. Mona Fortier served as an assistant to Mauril Bélanger, who lost his battle against ALS last August.

Fortier was endorsed by Bélanger’s widow in a hotly contested nomination which recruited 6,500 new members into what has been described as Canada’s safest Liberal riding.

Ottawa-Vanier has never voted anything but Grit. However, large margins have a way of evaporating in by-elections where voters can register dissatisfaction without turfing a government.

That is what makes byelections so tricky. In the case of Ottawa-Vanier, the ruling party does not seem to be in any real danger.

In the heart of the nation’s capital, the riding includes many public servants who are still breathing a sigh of relief that Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are no longer in power. By comparison, the Liberals are supportive of the role played by the bureaucracy in developing evidence-based policies.

The population is highly diverse, and supportive of the government’s strong stand in favour of refugee resettlement.

Controversy surrounding identity questions could loom large in the Quebec by-election called to replace former leader and foreign minister Stéphane Dion.

Star Liberal candidate and former Quebec immigration minister Yolande James has changed her position on the niqab, and her nomination opponents are zeroing in on this discrepancy.

While Quebec minister of immigration, James refused to allow a niqab-wearing woman to take French language classes.

James says her position on the issue has now evolved to the more liberal interpretation supported by her leader. But opponents are itching to emphasize the reversal. Fellow candidate and law professor Marwah Rizqy has expressed “deep unease” regarding the change of heart.

Another candidate, popular mayor of St. Laurent Alan Sousa, is not attacking James directly but encouraging a review of current and former positions of every candidate. St. Laurent is a multi-ethnic riding where openness to different religions is a sina quae non for electoral success.

The same cannot be said for two Alberta byelections replacing former prime minister Stephen Harper and Conservative cabinet minister Jason Kenney.

Both ridings have been comfortably Conservative for decades, and the current leadership debate in the Conservative party has focused on identity politics.

Candidate Kelly Leitch’s call for a Canadian values screening process for new immigrants has been panned by most opponents, including putative frontrunner Kevin O’Leary.

But the subject continues to garner interest at Conservative leadership debates including one on the weekend in Ottawa hosted by the Manning Leadership Centre Conference.

The Kenney move to lead the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party in order to dismantle it in favour of a merger with Wildrose has lead to some internal party turmoil.

Well-known Alberta Conservative and former Senator Ron Ghitter has been in a public fight with Kenney, accusing the latter of hijacking a progressive agenda and undoing the legacy of beloved Premier Peter Lougheed.

Kenney’s former riding is diverse by Alberta standards, and with the federal Liberals and Conservatives aligning on economic issues, Tory in-fighting could become a by-election lightening rod.

On the other hand, the high level of Conservative support during the halcyon days of the Liberal majority election do not bode well for the Trudeau team.

The Alberta economy is suffering, and in tough times, governments become lightening rods for economic discontent. A Liberal win in Alberta is unlikely but not impossible.

So the other must-win is the battle to replace outgoing minister John McCallum in Markham-Thornhill. The Liberal nomination has the potential to become nasty, with anonymous complaints circulating about the potential for interference. Frontrunner Mary Ng, has been granted a leave of absence from her position as director of appointments in the Prime Minister’s Office to contest the nomination.

Hong-Kong born Ng has an impressive background, having worked in the bureaucracy and politics at the provincial and federal levels. The Markham area riding includes a demographic of more than 35 per cent Chinese-Canadian voters.

However, Ng does not live in the riding and faces competition from local school trustee Juanita Nathan, and potential interest from incumbent Markham mayor Frank Scarpitti.

All five fights are worth the watch, for all comers.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era Cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.

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