Plenty at stake in federal byelection battles

On paper, the federal ridings of Quebec’s Outremont and British Columbia’s Burnaby South — whose voters will go to the polls on Feb. 25, along with those of Ontario’s York Simcoe — are on parallel byelection courses.

The NDP is the incumbent party in both and each has iconic significance for the party, along with some leadership-related history.

For as long as he was in federal politics, Thomas Mulcair owned Outremont on behalf of the New Democrats. In hindsight, his 2007 breakthrough in the Montreal riding has come to be seen as the precursor of the 2011 orange wave.

Mulcair’s successor, Jagmeet Singh, is hoping the voters of Burnaby South will give him a ticket to the House of Commons next month. A defeat could precipitate an unprecedented leadership crisis for the party.

But the Liberals also have much at stake.

Quebec and British Columbia will be central to Justin Trudeau’s re-election fortunes this fall.

If the Liberals are to make up for predictable losses in Atlantic Canada and Alberta, they will need to make gains in NDP-held ridings like Outremont and Burnaby South.

On that basis, their Outremont campaign is unfolding like a by-the-book dry run for this fall’s battle. With more than a month to go to the vote, the Montreal riding is plastered with Liberal signs.

In the battle to win back a riding where Stephane Dion in his days as leader famously barred Trudeau from entering politics, the face of the prime minister is prominent on every sign.

The party is campaigning as if its life in government depended on it.

In fact, winning back Outremont, a riding that was represented by the Liberals for much of its history, should be the easy part.

The opposition parties, including the Bloc Quebecois under new leader Yves-François Blanchet, will be more competitive in just about all the other opposition-held Quebec ridings Trudeau will have in his sights next year.

Meanwhile, in Burnaby South, the local Liberal campaign has become a gong show. At the end of a particularly messy week, the party is looking for a replacement for its initial candidate, after Karen Wang was ousted over social media comments referencing Singh’s ethnicity.

Much melodrama ensued in between the events that prompted her initial resignation as a Liberal candidate and the party’s subsequent refusal to give her a second chance. Wang has not ruled out running as an independent.

There have been suggestions that the Liberals are only too happy to drop the ball in Burnaby South, the better to ensure that Singh — who has yet to make a positive impression on many NDP supporters — passes the test of admission to the House of Commons next month and, as a result, remains at the head of his party for the general election.

A Mainstreet poll done before the wheels fell off the Liberal campaign had the NDP leader in the lead in the riding. What better way to rob Singh’s possible victory of its shine than to set it up as the mere product of a Liberal accident?

If only because it is less damaging than the alternative explanation — that, with only months to go until the general election, relative chaos reigns in the Liberal backrooms — the party has not tried hard to dismiss the notion that it is trying hard to lose the Burnaby South vote.

Given a choice between coming across as (cynically) clever or totally incompetent, who would not pick the former over the latter?

At a minimum, the Liberal spectacle that has been unfolding this week in Burnaby South speaks to a glaring lack of adult supervision. As it happens, that has also been par for the course in some other byelections over the past three years.

Looking at the Liberal track record in Quebec for instance, one finds more misses of the Burnaby South variety than organizational hits such as the one on showcase in Outremont.

The 2017 battle for Dion’s succession in the Liberal fortress of St-Laurent featured a messy nomination fight that saw the party’s all-but-publicly anointed choice — former Quebec minister Yolande James — lose to the preferred candidate of the riding’s Greek community.

More recently, in Chicoutimi-Le-Fjord, the Liberals allowed themselves to be outplayed by the Conservatives on the front of local recruitment, losing a seat and handing a morale-boosting Quebec victory in the process to rookie Leader Andrew Scheer.

No wonder the Liberals are doing such a great job of trying to snatch a defeat out of the hypothetical jaws of victory in Burnaby South.

They have had some practice recently.

Chantal Hebert is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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