The big news: By-elections don't matter, except this time

No party will admit defeat after this evening's votes

Photo by Cole Garside

By-elections don’t matter. They’re not significant. They’re no harbinger of the political future. Voters lash out against governments because the stakes are low, as is turnout. By-elections are isolated, local affairs that don’t have much consequence outside of the rigid borders of whichever riding is at stake. So, no, by-elections don’t matter. Except this time. Tonight, they’re significant harbingers.

Toronto Centre, Bourassa, Brandon-Souris and Provencher: the nation looks to you.

So goes the conversation every time a prime minister calls a cluster of by-elections. The Canadian Press sets the scene for a quartet of contests this evening—two in Manitoba, one in Toronto, and one in Montreal. The report declares that tonight’s fireworks are “being perceived as much more than just a litmus test for the Conservative government.” Indeed, they’re also meant to “declare which opposition party would be the best alternative” to Stephen Harper’s team.

Three party leaders have paid plenty of attention to the contests. Harper sent a letter to voters in Brandon, Man., where the Liberal candidate could win—and might even run away with what’s normally a Conservative gimme, if you trust the pollster who says so. The NDP’ Tom Mulcair and the Liberals’ Justin Trudeau have spent several days each campaigning in Toronto and Montreal. No one wants to lose. Trudeau and Mulcair thirst for upsets. Their combined ambition means that, even if by-elections don’t normally matter, CP says these four “seem to be the exception to the rule.”

Questions dog each leader: What effect will Harper’s uncertain role in the Senate expenses scandal have on his stock? How much will Trudeau’s rising star at community centres across the nation matter in the four communities that are voting tonight? Who noticed Mulcair’s thundering performance in the House of Commons?

It would be nice if voters would consider each of those questions carefully before they cast their ballots, for the benefit of the reporters who’ve assigned them such importance. Otherwise, claims that the elections “have taken on greater significance” will be all for naught. Usually, someone writes a story about high advanced poll turnout signalling some sense that voters are hungrier than ever to practice democracy. This time around, of course, someone wrote that story. Don’t disappoint those heightened expectations, voters.

Probably, every party will claim a victory of some sort tonight. The Conservatives will hold on to at least the Provencher seat, and claim any losses are restless voters sending a message to Ottawa. The Liberals could win anywhere between zero and three seats, everywhere except Provencher, but even competing means they’re back on the map. The NDP could win anywhere between zero and two seats, but they’ve made clear that zero—which is a good bet—is no loss because, hey, they’re the underdogs tonight.

And then, well, the by-elections will be over, memorable or not, and the nation will move on to other business, which it’s mostly carried on with, anyway. “Let this just be over,” writes Paul Wells, as voters get set to do their thing. Yes, please.


What’s above the fold

The Globe and Mail PM Harper met Nigel Wright on Feb. 22 to discuss Mike Duffy’s expenses.
National Post
Israel says a nuclear deal with Iran is an historic mistake.
Toronto Star Jon Bon Jovi wants to bring the Buffalo Bills to Toronto.
Ottawa Citizen John Baird is “deeply skeptical” of the nuclear deal with Iran.
CBC News A Calgary couple says their GM vehicle guzzles too much gas.
CTV News Four byelections are testing the federal leaders’ popularity.
National Newswatch The Liberals hold a 29-point lead in the by-election in Brandon, Man.


What you might have missed

THE NATIONAL Seals. The World Trade Organization rules today on the validity of the European Union’s ban on imported seal products. Even though the ban specifically exempts imports that originate in aboriginal communities, Inuit leader Terry Audla called the ban “Orwellian.” Norway is also challenging the policy.
THE GLOBAL Egypt. Gatherings of more than 10 people in Egypt require government approval, thanks to a new rule dictated over the weekend by interim president Adly Mansour meant to control protest. Human rights groups say the law is too restrictive, more so than any imposed by deposed leader Hosni Mubarak.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.