Liberals gain momentum

Sometimes byelections are just byelections, voting exercises that don’t deserve their turn under the analytic microscope. Local issues and local candidates can dominate, timing can drain much of their importance, their detachment from a general election can make the results an anomaly.

Sometimes byelections are just byelections, voting exercises that don’t deserve their turn under the analytic microscope.

Local issues and local candidates can dominate, timing can drain much of their importance, their detachment from a general election can make the results an anomaly.

As we learned on Monday, sometimes the turnout is so embarrassingly sparse that it is dangerous to draw conclusions.

But sometimes you have to tout the scorecard and when you do, there is a federal political trend that is unassailable — in nine trips to the polls under Justin Trudeau, Liberal voting percentages have grown nine times, in ridings as diverse as Labrador, downtown Toronto and Montreal, rural Manitoba and rural and Northern Alberta.

It’s easy — and smart — to ignore non-election-year polls and look at the strong Trudeau showing as anti-Stephen Harper “parking,” but much more difficult to ignore voting results, regardless of the sample size.

Trudeau has seized back two ridings, returning Labrador to the Liberal column from scandal-plagued Conservative minister Peter Penashue, a verdict that might have been preordained even without the newly minted leader campaigning there.

The second riding he grabbed back, the downtown Toronto riding of Trinity-Spadina, was much more symbolic.

By luring well-known city councillor Adam Vaughan into the race, he turned the battle upside down, blowing up the narrative of a relatively easy victory for New Democrat Joe Cressy and ending a messy internal Liberal party fight in the riding.

Trinity-Spadina voters have now turned to a Liberal provincially over their longtime provincial New Democrat Rosario Marchese, and decided they did not want to protect the legacy of Olivia Chow federally — and they did it in the space of about two weeks.

This may even have repercussions for Chow’s bid to become Toronto mayor, although her support in the city cuts beyond strictly partisan NDP lines. But while Liberal victories in Trinity-Spadina and Scarborough-Agincourt will get the most attention the day after the Canada Day weekend byelections, it is the growth of the Liberal vote in Manitoba and Alberta in contests over the past seven months that could hold an omen for 2015.

In Brandon-Souris last November, Trudeau grew the Liberal vote by 39 points, and in rural Provencher he grew his party’s vote by 23 points.

Monday, in the seemingly impenetrable Conservative vaults of Macleod and Fort McMurray-Athabasca, the Liberal vote grew 13 points and 25 points, respectively, since the 2011 general election.

The other counts? In the urban Montreal riding of Bourassa, the Liberal vote grew seven points, in Toronto Centre, it rose eight points, Labrador’s jump was 10 points, Scarborough-Agincourt 13 points and Trinity-Spadina a whopping 30 points.

This doesn’t presage some type of Liberal sweep of Manitoba and Alberta next year.

Macleod had delivered at 75 per cent and beyond for Conservatives in recent years and had been held by the right-wing party of the day dating to the Diefenbaker era. The Alberta pluralities for Conservatives candidates were still massive Monday.

But the voting trends are the only real numbers we have — they are not crowd counts, or question period performance, fawning local coverage in small towns or even fundraising numbers.

They are votes and that is why the Trudeau performance must be seen as a 2015 momentum builder.

But Monday cannot pass without a word on turnout.

If the Harper objective in calling the byelections on a Monday of a long weekend was to let them pass without legitimate participation and with scant attention, particularly in his stronghold, then score another victory for the prime minister.

For the first time in history, two ridings, Fort McMurray-Athabasca (15.2 per cent) and Macleod (19.6 per cent) had voter turnout below 20 per cent.

Fort McMurray already had the dubious distinction of the lowest turnout in the 2011 election.

The two Toronto ridings were only marginally better. Scarborough-Agincourt hit 29.4 per cent and Trinity-Spadina hit 31.6 per cent.

It is hard to blame voters — very little was at stake, politics on a hot summer day is never going to trump a trip to the cottage or the pool — but there is a real sense of emptiness left in our electoral system when the best we can muster is a riding where almost one in three eligible voters bothered to exercise their franchise.

And a note to Harper, who wanted this night of byelections to be met by a national shrug. That was an awful lot of supposed Conservative voters in Alberta who couldn’t be bothered to mark an X this time.

Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at tharper@thestar.ca.

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