The voter turnout was relatively small and the three major parties held on to their seats in four federal by-elections held across Canada this week, but the numbers show that the Liberal Party of Canada made a 40 per cent gain in overall numbers at the expense of the Conservatives and the New Democratic Party.
Coincidentally, the by-elections took place this week at the half way mark to the next federal election in 2015.
No politician likes to admit that these types of elections could be considered indications of how his or her party is faring, unless, of course, the results bode well for them.
Liberal Chrystia Freeland, in Toronto Centre, takes over from high profile politician Bob Rae, former interim leader of the federal Liberal Party. The Liberals also held on to Bourassa riding in Quebec with Haitian Canadian Emmanuel Dubourg replacing Denis Corderre, who is now Mayor of Montreal. In Manitoba, Provencher elected Conservative Ted Falk replacing federal safety minister Vic Toews and in Brandon-Souris, Larry Maguire kept the riding for the Conservatives.
The once mighty Liberals, currently in third place in Parliament, are taking comfort in their gains as a positive sign following the recent elevation of Justin Trudeau to party leader.
But the matter of the recent upheaval in the Senate over inappropriate travel expense claims and subsequent censure of Conservatives Patrick Brazeau, Pamela Wallen and Mike Duffy – all handpicked by Prime Minister Stephen Harper – hung over these elections.
It was left to Falk in Provencher to admit that, yes, voters were making a point of stating to him that they felt the Senate scandal was marring the Conservative brand and expressing worry that the controversy is not cooling off.
Conservative supporters may want this controversy to go away but just days before these by-elections, the RCMP revealed findings that placed the handling of the matter of Duffy’s $90,000 repayment for inappropriate claims in the Prime Minister’s Office. Harper steadfastly claims he had no knowledge of the terms of Duffy’s repayment arrangements, but his reputation for having tight control of his caucus and staff has left many skeptical of his denials.
Harper maintains the decision was correct to insist that the senators in trouble repay the money from inappropriate claims. No one disputes that. The question is how the voting public and especially the Conservative base will respond to the way it was handled, especially when Harper strongly proclaimed that the kinds of shenanigans that corrupted the previous federal Liberal government would not be tolerated in his Conservative government.
The sum of money Duffy was ordered by Harper himself to repay is not the issue, but rather the manner in which that money was transferred to Duffy and the level of denial Harper has invested in saying he knew nothing about any of the arrangements between Duffy and then Chief of Staff Nigel Wright, now voluntarily resigned or dismissed (it’s not clear which) after he gave Duffy the money to repay the debt.
The turnout at the polls was low and the loss in numbers to the Liberals is something for the Conservatives to digest, but will Harper’s personal handling of the Senate cost him the prime ministership? Or is it just one more nail in the coffin of this period of Conservative governance? After all, 12 years – it’ll be that much by the next election – is a good run.
The shift in votes to the Liberals could be a sign that Harper would have to at least begin to consider the end date for his time at bat. It is no secret that there are others with ambitions for leadership waiting in the wings.
While the Harper Conservatives like to focus on their successful management of the economy, in many areas of public concern – absence of a substantive national housing plan, no coordinated national transportation plan, the mean-spirited eviscerating of employment insurance eligibility, pitting low-wage temporary foreign workers against local human resources, laxity on the environment file – this government has been dismissive of a large and vulnerable sector of society. These, more than the senate controversy, will be what the Harper Conservatives have to answer to.