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Opinion

Byelections give Liberals some cause for concern

By Chantal HÉbert      

It will take many more election nights like Monday's before women are no longer under-represented in the House of Commons.

The good news for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau coming out of Monday's vote is that the NDP, for now, is in no shape to do his party serious damage. But the wind in the sails of the Conservatives in Ontario and Alberta does not bode well for key provincial allies at Queen's Park and in Edmonton. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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Gender parity was the hands-down winner of Monday’s five federal byelections. The Conservative brand was a close second, but not necessarily for reasons related to the continuing federal leadership campaign.

Where there were five male MPs on election night 2015, there are now four women and one man. Mona Fortier, Mary Ng, and Emmanuella Lambropoulos are Liberals from Ontario and Quebec. Stephanie Kusie is a Conservative from Alberta. (Stephen Harper’s successor as MP for Calgary Heritage is Bob Benzen.)

It will take many more election nights like Monday’s before women are no longer under-represented in the House of Commons.

In Canadian politics, the slow walk to gender parity is best measured in inches.

For those unfamiliar with the imperial system, there are 63,360 inches to a mile.

And miles to go before the House reaches parity.

In the wake of the April 3 votes there are 246 men to 92 women in the Commons.

The five ridings in play were all considered safe Liberal and Conservative seats and they lived up to their reputation.

The Liberals kept Saint-Laurent, Ottawa-Vanier and Markham-Thornhill with more than 50 per cent of the vote, as did the Conservatives Calgary Heritage and Calgary Midnapore. Party standings in the House of Commons are unchanged.

But the Conservative base was more motivated than that of the Liberals.

Prime ministers do not routinely campaign in byelections. Justin Trudeau did.

Liberal strategists will have to ponder whether it was worth putting some of the prime minister’s political capital on the line only to see the party’s share of the vote go down in every riding.

Mind you, whether Trudeau should alone wear the loss in support is debatable.

The two Ontario ridings saw the largest increase in opposition support. In Ottawa-Vanier the NDP gained almost 10 points from the last election. In Markham-Thornhill, Conservative support rose from 32 per cent to 39 per cent.

This comes when the provincial Liberals are struggling in the polls in voting intentions. Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne is the least popular premier in the country. Some prominent members of her party are openly predicting that the Ontario Liberals cannot be re-elected to government next year unless they replace her.

There are fewer than six degrees of separation between the federal and provincial Liberals in Ontario.

A leadership malaise at Queen’s Park could have found its way into Monday’s federal byelection mix.

Local infighting over coveted party nominations and the perception that the Prime Minister’s Office was meddling in the process probably did not help. Lambropoulos, who was anything but the establishment’s choice for Saint-Laurent, finished the night with the best score of the three Liberal byelection winners.

For the NDP, Ottawa-Vanier was the only bright spot in a depressing picture. The party ran fourth in Montreal behind the Green Party. No New Democrat should be in a hurry to test how the party would do in Outremont if departing leader Thomas Mulcair relinquishes his seat after his successor is chosen.

NDP support hovered around three per cent in the other three ridings. Like Premier Wynne in Ontario, New Democrat Premier Rachel Notley will find nothing to celebrate in her federal cousins’ results in Alberta on Monday.

Calgary Heritage used to be Harper’s seat. Jason Kenney represented Calgary Midnapore until he made the jump to provincial politics. Between them, they dominated the federal Conservative party in Alberta and beyond. And yet their successors increased the party’s share of the vote to more than 70 per cent in their former ridings on Monday.

By all indications, the provincial and federal carbon-pricing plans have given the Conservatives a rationale to rally Alberta voters to their flag and a greater incentive to reconcile the province’s two feuding conservative parties to defeat Notley’s government.

The good news for Trudeau coming out of Monday’s vote is that the NDP, for now, is in no shape to do his party serious damage.
But the wind in the sails of the Conservatives in Ontario and Alberta does not bode well for key provincial allies at Queen’s Park and in Edmonton.

The impetus for the Conservatives to regroup and focus on both winning Alberta and Ontario and taking on Trudeau at the first ministers table will be even greater, should next month’s federal party leadership vote yield a divisive result.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs columnist for The Toronto Star. This column was released on April 5. 

The Hill Times 

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