Elizabeth emerged from the polling station with an unsatisfied look on her face. The Ottawa-Vanier resident had biked through the cold to MacKay United Church in order to cast her vote in the provincial by-election on Nov.17. She’d decided her vote wasn’t going to matter much this time.
After the death of Mauril Belanger and the resignation of Madeleine Meilleur, the region was left with empty seats in Parliament Hill and Queen’s Park, respectively, for almost four months.
While some polls had predicted a tight race between Liberal candidate Nathalie Des Rosiers and star Conservative candidate Andre Marin, the Liberals won with nearly 49 per cent of the vote. The victory was welcome news for Premier Kathleen Wynne, who, according to a recent Angus Reid poll, is the country’s least popular premier. But there are warning signs for the Liberal government in the Ottawa-Vanier results.
“On the surface, this looks like a status quo result, right? The Liberals hold a seat that was never going to go anything but Liberal,” said Quito Maggi, CEO of national polling firm Mainstreet Research.
“But below that, look at the numbers. It’s never been below 50 per cent before. They came in at 48. The Conservatives traditionally get about 23 here, their high watermark is 31, and they got 29.”
A by-election on the same day in Niagara West-Glanbrook, a typically conservative riding, showed more regression, as the Liberals went from second with almost 30 per cent in 2014’s provincial election, to third and 15 per cent. But results from by-elections can’t easily be compared to those of general elections.
“By-elections are a bit of a different beast, said Nik Nanos of Nanos Research. “Because if you’re a card-carrying Liberal and you’re not happy with Kathleen Wynne, you don’t have to vote for the Liberals to send a message … the Liberals will still be in power provincially. They’re perfectly made vehicles for protest voting.”
Judging by previous by-elections, there has been a lot of protesting. There have been six by-elections since the Liberals were elected. Four of the by-elections resulted in Conservative victories, including a PC win in Scarborough-Rouge River, a riding the Liberals had held since it was created in 1999. In all six cases, the Liberal vote share has dropped, as compared with prior general election results.
*In the graphs above, the average vote for all six by-election ridings includes the three preceding general elections, the two 2015 by-elections, and the four 2016 by-elections.
“So even though technically (Ottawa-Vanier) is a win for Kathleen Wynne and the Ontario Liberals, the margin has really tightened,” said Maggi. “It could make a lot more people nervous across the province. Liberal candidates seeking re-election thinking ‘wow the gap in Ottawa-Vanier went from 33 in 2014 to 19. That’s a big shift.’” In fact, Maggi believes the race would have been a lot closer were it not for a tweet from Marin’s campaign manager that declared support for Donald Trump.
“It probably increased their vote by another four thousand. And the PC vote dropped about two thousand. I thought the Liberals would get 11,000 and they got 14,000. So, self-inflicted wounds.”
The Conservatives also faced some obstacles at Ottawa city council. Before the by-election, Mayor Jim Watson sent out a questionnaire to the candidates in the region asking what their priorities would be.
Rideau-Vanier councillor Mathieu Fleury, a close ally of Watson, was worried about the possibility of a Marin win. “The Conservative candidate is saying false things about our community as if he doesn’t know it, right?” he said before the by-election.
“He doesn’t know it well and he’s proving it by his comments, saying ‘oh Vanier’s seeing a lot of shootings,’ and standing with a sign behind him of all the shootings in Ottawa and an empty spot in Vanier.”
Still, the results encouraged the Conservative party.
“This is a Liberal fortress,” Marin said after the results were revealed.
“They threw everything they have at us and we still increased our base by seven per cent. I think what’s important here is to put everything in perspective and see we’ve made some significant gains in Ottawa-Vanier.”
Fleury has been looking for both federal and provincial support to continue the projects he cares most about in the region: affordable housing; the revitalization of the Byward Market; and a truck tunnel linking the Macdonald-Cartier Bridge and Nicholas Street/Highway 417.
Whatever happens in the rest of the province, the ripples of dissent against the current government have already been felt in a staunchly Liberal riding. Some think that if Wynne’s team can’t get 50 per cent here, even in a by-election, they may be in real trouble.
Asked what was most important to her in the vote she had just cast, Elizabeth didn’t mention truck tunnels or hydro. She didn’t talk about the Byward Market or affordable housing. A Green Party supporter, she also didn’t hesitate: “Pipelines.”
In January of this year, Wynne announced her support for the Energy East pipeline.
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