UPDATED: Rae, Coderre resignations pave way for great reckoning
[Welcome, National Newswatch readers!]
The dual resignations of Liberal MPs Denis Coderre and Bob Rae from the House of Commons will, luckily for the Prime Minister, put the focus back on the battle between the NDP and Liberals for the next few months.
UPDATE: The summer political calendar below has been updated to include the decision deadline for the Maritime Link project in late July.
With the so-called "cooperation" gimmick dead in the water, both because it was rejected in both parties' leadership contests, and because the Conservative government is suddenly looking beatable, the two upcoming federal by-elections in Montréal Nord's Bourassa riding and Toronto Centre will see the governing party sidelined (along with the Bloc). All eyes will be on these two Liberal-NDP contests, as the two opposition parties battle not only for the seats themselves, but for the right to carry the mantle as the perceived alternative government-in-waiting.
Adding to those stakes will be a series of three Ontario provincial by-elections, and the Nova Scotia provincial general election, all expected this summer or fall, all in former Liberal seats, or pitting the Liberals against the NDP. The provincial Progressive Conservatives will not be a factor in Windsor Tecumseh, ON where the NDP is currently favoured to snatch Dwight Duncan's vacated seat, though the PCs will be in contention in London West vacated by Chris Bentley, and currently hold the lead in a three-way race according to the last beauty contest poll from Forum Research in Ottawa South where former premier Dalton McGuinty just stepped down.
In Nova Scotia, which will become the next focus of David Akin's excellent "Battleground" series on Sun TV, NDP premier Darrell Dexter is going to see if the trend to re-electing incumbent provincial governments can carry on one last time, but again his strongest challenger at this point is not Conservative leader Jamie Baillie, but Liberal Stephen McNeil.
Meanwhile, next Tuesday will see the filling of the provincial Liberal seat in Cartwright-l'Anse-au-Clair, vacated by Yvonne Jones to run federally in Labrador. An upset by the NDP there would have the effect of switching the official opposition in that legislature, but it's not considered likely given the long Liberal pedigree in that constituency.
By-elections represent both opportunities and risks for parties, and they have several ways to approach them:
- Take themselves out of the race effectively or altogether, when there is no upside to contesting the race seriously. This is the approach the Conservatives have usually taken when opposition seats opened up, by sending out emails to the press gallery pointing out that governments rarely win by-elections. More recently, Elizabeth May tried to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear by trying to turn a decision not to run in Labrador into a squeeze play against the NDP. In the current round, it's Bloc Québécois leader Daniel Paillé who has already announced he won't be running in Bourassa, though I'll need to do more reading to see whether that means the Bloc won't field a candidate at all.
- Run to win, either to hold on to an existing seat in the absence of too much serious competition (the NDP in Toronto-Danforth, and the Conservatives in Durham), or to try steal it away from a competitor. We've seen contests – though very different ones – in Victoria, BC (NDP-Grn), Calgary Centre, AB (Cons-Lib-Grn), and Labrador, NL (Lib-Cons).
- Use it to build the local riding association in an area of potential future growth for the party, train new organizers, and/or test out new messages and technologies for the next general election.
Underlying all of these approaches though is a party's need to manage expectations. Worst of all is to lose a seat you hold, though it's a toss-up as to which is next-worst: underperforming previous results, or failing to meet unrealistic externally-imposed expectations. Not every party is competitive in every riding, and the danger is always for national implications to be drawn from a riding that's atypical and which you're not competitive in.
Over the years the Liberals have become competitive in fewer and fewer parts of the country. At the last election, they were left with the east coast, allophone Montréal and the West Island, the tony parts of Toronto, a couple of Ontario university towns, two very urban prairie seats and the tony parts of Vancouver. Since then they challenged for and missed a chance to pick up Calgary Centre, and regained their stronghold in Labrador. Now they have two of their incumbent federal seats and four of their provincial ones up for grabs, new leaders in Ontario and federally, and a honeymoon bounce in the public domain polls. Let's take a look at the upcoming political calendar, and then at their prospects in the two federal seats.
Summer & Fall Political Calendar
- Mon, June 3 – Denis Coderre's resignation in Bourassa took effect. Coderre is running for the Montréal mayoralty.
- last Friday, June 14 – First day Bourassa federal by-election could have been called (for an E-day of Monday, July 22 or later)
- Mon, June 24 – Fête nationale in Québec
- Tues, June 25 – Cartwright-L'Anse-au-Clair, NL provincial by-election; also Montréal city council members vote to elect a new interim mayor
- Thurs, June 27 – Conservative Party national convention convenes in Calgary, AB, featuring a major speech by the Prime Minister
- Sun, June 30 – deadline for registered parties to file their annual financial returns and audited statements (likely deferred to Tuesday, July 2)
- Mon, July 1 – Canada Day; Bob Rae's resignation in Toronto Centre takes effect
- week of Mon, July 8 – said to be the timing for a major federal cabinet shuffle
- Wed, July 10 – Provincial by-election in Westside-Kelowna, BC where BC Liberal Premier Christy Clark is running after losing her Vancouver seat in May's general election
- Fri, July 12 – First day Toronto Centre federal by-election could be called, for an E-day of Monday, August 19 or later
- Tues, July 16 – Court date for Selkirk-Interlake, MB Conservative M.P. James Bezan, in his dispute with Elections Canada about his 2011 candidate financial return
- Wed, Jul 24 – Fri, Jul 26 – Premiers meet, with Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne chairing, in Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON
- UPDATE: Sat, Jul 27 – Maritime Link decision by Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board expected before this date
- Wed, July 31 – deadline for registered parties to file their second-quarter financial returns
- Thu, August 15 – last day to call provincial Windsor-Tecumseh and London West provincial by-elections (and, presumably Ottawa South would be included) according to the Toronto Star, although I'm confused about that because the Ontario Elections Act says a writ has to be issued on a Wednesday
- Mon, September 2 – Labour Day
- Sometime in September, the new federal electoral boundaries are set to be proclaimed, and will take effect for any general election called at least a year later
- Thurs, September 12 – Court date for Essex, ON Conservative M.P. Jeff Watson, in his dispute with Elections Canada about his 2011 candidate financial return
- Mon, September 16 – House of Commons scheduled to reconvene (unless prorogued in the meantime)
- Thurs, September 19 – the fifth Thursday after the last day to call the first two Ontario provincial by-elections (if the Toronto Star is right about the August 15th date), in other words the last possible provincial by-election E-day for all three. If the Star is wrong, and August 14 is the last day to call the two by-elections, they would have to be held a week earlier on Thursday September 12
- Fri, September 20 – nominations open for the Québec municipal elections, and close 2 weeks later
- The Québec Court of Appeal could hold its hearings on the constitutionality of the federal government's Senate Reform legislation in September
- Fri, October 4 – nominations close for the Québec municipal elections
- Mon, October 14 – Thanksgiving; also the deadline for federal Liberal leadership contestants to file their final return with Elections Canada (so probably deferred to Tues, Oct 15)
- Thu, October 31 – deadline for registered parties to file their third-quarter financial returns
- Sun, November 3 – Québec municipal elections held
- Sat, November 30 – last day to call the Bourassa by-election
- The Supreme Court of Canada will hold its hearings on the federal government's reference regarding methods of reforming or abolishing the Senate sometime in November
- Tue, December 31 – deadline for submission of Joint Review Panel report on Northern Gateway pipeline project
Because Bourassa is a Montréal riding, and the fall will be consumed by the Montréal municipal elections, the Prime Minister must decide whether he wants to have the by-election out of the way before Parliament returns in September and the municipal campaign starts, or whether he wants to wait until after the municipal vote across Québec. Waiting entails at least some overlap with the municipal campaign, since a federal by-election call after November 3 would put Election Day on Monday, December 23.
Meanwhile in Toronto Centre, where the by-election could be held as late as February 3, a mid-autumn campaign could run the risk of overlapping an engineered provincial election call, something Ontario Premier Wynne pointedly refused to rule out when her budget passed last month.
Having no serious horse in either federal by-election race, it's hard to fathom what the Prime Minister thinks his party's interest might be in the timing beyond making the assumption that he wants to keep his foes evenly matched in strength, and fighting each other for as long as possible.
For the Liberals, the two federal by-elections will also serve as an incubator for their new leader's commitment to running open nominations. In the heyday of competitive Liberal nominations, thousands of newly-signed up members would crowd into large halls, with several candidates to choose from; but by 2011 candidates were selected by appointment or acclamation in two-thirds of all ridings. Presumably, having an "open nomination" does not remove the green-lighting process by party headquarters, but to what extent it entails freeing up the process by which membership forms can be obtained, and nomination dates and rules set, we will learn this summer and fall.
Some 25 people have applied to run for the Liberal nomination in Bourassa, reportedly, while the names of both former provincial minister and Toronto mayoralty candidate George Smitherman, and former CTV Canada AM host and one-time aide to Jean Charest and Brian Tobin, Seamus O'Regan, have been swirling around as possible candidates to replace Rae, along with a couple of other younger names mentioned in the Xtra.ca story about the upcoming race, including Pascal Dessureault from the 519 Church St Community Centre, and Liberal essayist Zach Paikin.
Meanwhile, Xtra taps former Much Music VJ Jennifer Hollett as a possible candidate for the NDP in Toronto Centre, while that party has also been casting a wide net in its candidate search in Bourassa. The NDP has always maintained a policy of open nominations, but first it mandates a set of candidate search protocols designed to identify and approach possible candidates from under-represented target groups. While those protocols have had a good record over time, since 2011 they haven't produced a single nominated female by-election candidate, something the party is under some pressure from members to rectify in this round of by-elections. Leader Tom Mulcair will be in the riding very soon attending a Pride Parade fundraising brunch.
I assume the Green Party will avoid running in Bourassa, but field a candidate in Toronto Centre, but haven't seen any reporting on that as yet.
So, we could see the Liberals win Cartwright-L'Anse-au-Clair in Labrador on Tuesday, lose 1, 2 or 3 provincial by-elections in Ontario over the summer, hold one or both of the federal by-election seats in the fall, and potentially defeat a one-term NDP government in Nova Scotia.
Best case for the NDP is to pick up 2 of the 3 Ontario provincial by-elections, gain Toronto Centre, and narrowly retain their one maritime provincial government.
As an allophone riding in north Montréal next to leader Justin Trudeau's riding of Papineau, Bourassa exemplifies the party's biggest demographic strength in Québec and is the Liberals' to lose, though the NDP could lose some face if seen to launch a more vigourous campaign than their eventual results warrant. In Toronto Centre, the Liberals will dominate in the north part, while the NDP's strength is in the south. Thus both parties will be looking for candidates with crossover appeal to the other side. I expect it to be a very close-fought and interesting race.
By the end, we'll see what kinds of candidates the two leaders can attract, how they plan to run against one another down east, in Montréal, and in downtown Toronto, and how well-oiled their campaign machines are two years out from the next general election.