The Two By-Elections – What do the results mean?

The overwhelming consensus is that yesterday’s by-elections in Niagara West-Glanbrook and Ottawa-Vanier had virtually no impact on the agenda and priorities of the Ontario government, and offered no insight into the next provincial election in 2018. While this is true of the results, there are still come lessons to be learned for all parties.

Even before the first votes were tallied, some facts would remain the same regardless of the outcome of the by-elections. The Liberal government was always going to maintain its majority government status, meaning the Liberals will continue to control the legislative agenda and implement policy priorities with little, practical interference from the opposition parties.

Despite the hype, by-elections are typically poor predictors of future general election outcomes. They can turn on a local candidate far more than a general election’s local race. They have much lower voter turnout compared to general elections. They can provide voters with the opportunity to “send a message” to the government, without changing the government. As such, the top line results rarely prove generalizable.

That said, the process and outcome of the two by-elections exposed some vulnerabilities and troubling patterns for all three parties, which they should address to be successful in the next general election in 2018.

Ontario PCs Win Niagara West-Glanbrook

The rural riding was held by the former Ontario PC leader Tim Hudak since 1995, and seen as safely PC “blue”. This was always going to be a fight for second place between the Liberals and NDP, so the Ontario PC victory in the by-election should not come as a surprise.

What was a surprise to many was the candidate local Ontario PC members nominated, and who is now the new MPP for Niagara West-Glanbrook.  Sam Oosterhoff, a 19 year-old home-schooled social conservative, prevailed over seasoned local politicians to secure the PC nomination. Among the defeated was former federal Conservative MP Rick Dykstra, the current Ontario PC Party President and a close friend and advisor to party leader Patrick Brown.

Prior to the by-election, Brown was attempting to distance himself from social conservative issues, including publicly supporting the government’s new sex-ed curriculum, which he had previously criticized. Oosterhoff prevailed over Brown’s advisor and PC Party President for the nomination with significant support from social conservatives inside and outside the riding. Brown will clearly need to focus some of his energy on gaining more control over the political operations within his own party. A raft of social conservative candidates in a general election could limit his chances at winning moderate Ontarians.

At the same time, he may very well find himself under pressure by some within his own caucus to embrace unpopular positions in the lead-up to the 2018 election. Oosterhoff joins a number of Ontario PC caucus members who are not beholden to Brown for their victory, and may be less inclined to toe the party line on a variety of issues. Always a fractious coalition, the Ontario PC Party has had significant difficulty in the post-Mike Harris era of rallying behind its leader. Leading a party known in recent years for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory with self-defeating policy choices, Brown may need to spend more time than he would like on managing the internal politics of his caucus, nominations process and party policy development.

Liberals Retain Ottawa-Vanier, Third in Niagara West-Glanbrook

The convincing victory of Nathalie Des Rosiers over high-profile Ontario PC candidate – and former Ontario Ombudsman – Andre Marin, might give some Liberals cause to celebrate. It was certainly greeted with a palpable sense of relief in the Liberal election night party.

The heavily Francophone riding has been a Liberal stronghold in each of the last 13 provincial elections. In the general election in 2014, Liberal Madeleine Meilleur received over 55% of votes and defeated the next closest candidate by over 13,000 votes. Liberal Nathalie Des Rosier held the seat with a similar margin. After the loss of a safe Liberal seat in Scarborough-Rouge River almost three months ago, the stakes for this by-election were artificially high.

Given charges against the Party CEO for Election Act violations and poor mid-term polling, there was cause to fear catastrophe. Instead, none of these elements appeared to dent the Liberals’ ability to identify and mobilize a significant Liberal vote in Ottawa-Vanier.  They will enter an AGM in Ottawa this weekend buoyant and perhaps even a little giddy. The relief needs to be tempered with some cold reality lest they fall into complacency, or even the kryptonite of Liberals, arrogance.

While the by-election was never make or break for the governing party, there are significant challenges ahead. Perhaps most troubling is a persistent hostility to the Liberals in rural Ontario and the deindustrializing cities of the Southwest. The third place showing for the Liberals in Niagara West-Glanbrook may indicate that the PC-NDP battles we saw in Southwestern Ontario in 2014 – with the Liberals dealt out completely – could remain in effect in 2018 without significant remediation.

The Liberals need to address those deficiencies in an orderly but methodical fashion. As high wage jobs migrate to large cities like Toronto, developing an attractive political narrative outside the GTHA is crucial. With fundraising rules drastically altered, identifying galvanizing political issues that motivate personal small-dollar donations is key.

No Gains for NDP, Despite Hydro Fight

The reality is that the NDP was unlikely to win either by-election given the traditional PC and Liberal voting patterns in each riding. However, the NDP was probably hoping their persistent opposition to the province’s partial sale of Hydro One and rising electricity prices would translate into a stronger showing. In fact, the government’s announcement in the Throne Speech that the provincial portion of the HST would be removed from some hydro bills can be seen, in part, as a response to the NDP’s advocacy on this issue.