Liberals Win By-elections

While many Canadians watched a glittering array of Hollywood's winners at the Oscars last Monday evening, a glum Conservative Leader Jean Charest was tuned to another channel - and a very different picture.

Liberals Win By-elections

While many Canadians watched a glittering array of Hollywood's winners at the Oscars last Monday evening, a glum Conservative Leader Jean Charest was tuned to another channel - and a very different picture. From his fourth-floor office on Parliament Hill, Charest saw Tory candidates in six federal byelections from Newfoundland to Ontario go down to defeat. Far worse, when the numbers were crunched, it was clear that the Tories' archrival, the Reform party, had dramatically bettered its performance in English Canada. In Quebec, the Conservatives, with a paltry 1.9 per cent of the vote, had become a fringe party. Although Charest has become accustomed to bad news, the six losses were demoralizing. He threw out the glib jokes that his staff had prepared, delivered a low-key statement and went home. Shunning the television, he sought comfort in the book Rogue Tory - the biography of a politician who beat the odds, the late Conservative prime minister John Diefenbaker. As Charest bluntly conceded to Maclean's: "We were not a player. It's that simple."

For the three parties that were in the game, the byelections brought intriguing political tidings. The governing Liberals easily retained the five ridings they held before the election, including two Quebec seats earmarked for their new cabinet stars, International Trade Minister Pierre Pettigrew and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion. In Quebec, the bulk of the vote split between the federalist Liberals and the separatist Bloc Québécois, squeezing all other parties out of the picture. In Labrador and Metro Toronto, the Reform party unexpectedly surged ahead of the Tories, claiming victory in the battle for right-wing support. "The Liberals should be feeling very good because this is normally the point in the mandate when people are critical of governments," noted pollster Donna Dasko, vice-president of Environics Research Group Ltd. "It is also good news for the Reform party in the sense that they are pretty much the alternative - at this point - in Canada-outside-Quebec."

Indeed, the byelections sharpened a brutal, behind-the-scenes struggle in English Canada for the support of small-c conservative voters in a general election. The numbers tell the reason for that turmoil: the combined Reform and Conservative vote would have defeated the Liberals by less than 100 votes in Etobicoke North and put victory within reach in Labrador. To Reformers, the only conclusion is that if right-wing voters want to win, they cannot split their support between two parties. "Take a hard look at Reform," leader Preston Manning implored Tory supporters. Reform MP Deborah Grey noted the Tories' dwindling share of the popular vote. "The byelections drove the facts home," she said in an interview. "The Conservatives are not a powerful force to be reckoned with on the national stage any longer." As salt in those wounds, Liberal insider Michael Robinson joked that Charest's plight reminded him of the Oscar-nominated film Dead Man Walking.

Such talk infuriates Tories - but it has not budged them from their measured agenda to rebuild the party. They are in the midst of a series of provincial policy conferences in preparation for a national convention in August. They will start to nominate candidates and to strengthen their riding organizations in September. Conservative strategist Senator Norm Atkins noted that recent polls indicate that Charest is far more popular than Manning in English Canada (50 per cent to 32 per cent in a recent CBC Television News survey). "If you divide it into leadership, policy and organization, we have got one-third," Atkins said. "Now, we have got to build the other two-thirds, marrying the leader to a policy agenda and a team of candidates."

Still, nothing will be easy for the Conservatives. The case in Quebec for the once-dominant party appears all but hopeless. With virtually no campaign organization in the province, the Tories were unable to benefit when the byelection vote split between sovereigntists and federalists. Instead, committed federalists clustered around the Liberals in roughly the same proportion that they did around the No side in last fall's referendum. In a pattern unlikely to break before the next federal election, that strong Liberal vote defeated the Bloc in the Montreal ridings of Papineau/St-Michel and St-Laurent/Cartierville. Meanwhile, the Bloc candidate in Lac-St-Jean, 22-year-old bush pilot Stéphan Tremblay, easily retained the riding vacated by former Bloc leader Lucien Bouchard. Overall, the Tories' share of the vote in Quebec dropped another five percentage points from 1993.

In the rest of Canada, the Tories were simply outclassed. Their candidate may have come second in Humber/St. Barbe/Baie Verte to Liberal Gerry Byrne. But the Reform party, shut out in Atlantic Canada in 1993, grabbed an astonishing 18 per cent of the vote, a mere five points behind the Tories. But it was in Labrador, won by Liberal Laurence O'Brien, that Reform beat the Tories at the strategic game at which they once excelled. Reform mustered critics to address every hot local issue, from the deplorable state of the province's Trans-Labrador Highway to gun control.

The Tories actually squandered a lead over Reform going into the byelection in Etobicoke North, which was won by Liberal Roy Cullen. That was the sole riding where Reform had a slim chance of beating the Liberals. Initial Liberal polls placed the Tories in second place, with 20 per cent of the vote; by the end, they had dropped to 10 per cent. While the Tories staged a haphazard campaign, Reform siphoned away their votes with the thinly veiled anti-Quebec slogan, "Boot the Bloc" - an attempt to replace the Bloc as official Opposition by winning one more seat than it holds in the House of Commons. In one piece of its campaign literature, a cartoon caricature of Reform candidate Joe Peschisolido was shown kicking a figure with the word "Bloc" emblazoned across its rear. Tory strategist Atkins ruefully concluded: "Their 'Boot the Bloc' was more effective than we thought it would be."

Eventually, the Tories intend to turn that slogan against their rival. Charest has resisted strong pressure from his party ranks to vilify Quebec separatists. Instead, he is quietly attempting to build on his reputation as a level-headed, articulate advocate of national unity. If he is successful, he could position himself during the federal election as the leader of the only opposition party with historic appeal and roots in both Quebec and English Canada. He would then dismiss both the Bloc and Reform as regional parties, unwilling or unable to pull the country together. Charest is hoping that appeal will be enough to lure back more moderate Conservatives who deserted to Reform in 1993. "We are very confident of the place that we have on the national stage," Charest told Maclean's. "In the next election, Canadians will be looking for leaders that bring the country together, that are part of the solution, not part of the problem. And that is where Manning comes up short."

Some Liberals believe that it is in their interests to keep the Tories alive - if only because it divides their conservative opposition. That sentiment is especially strong among the 97-member Ontario caucus, many of whom faced tough battles with Reform candidates in the last election and who are uneasily aware of private Liberal predictions that the party will lose 25 to 32 of those seats in the next election. As well, many Liberals are wary of dismissing the strength of a political foe that walloped them in two federal elections in the 1980s. At a recent $125-a-plate fund-raising dinner in Toronto, for example, the Tories emerged with $30,000. As Liberal pollster Michael Marzolini, chairman of Insight Canada Research, said: "The Tory support is very much underestimated. They weren't seen in these byelections as the viable alternative. But they have underlying support that at some stage, most likely in a general election, will be far more readily apparent. They are not dead yet."

The byelection winners, especially the Liberals, face the opposite dilemma: they risk the danger of overconfidence. Already, some Liberal party strategists are speculating about the possibility of a fall election to capitalize on their high approval ratings in the polls and the split in the conservative vote. Such loose talk alarms rank-and-file MPs. Toronto Liberal MP Sarkis Assadourian told Maclean's that he views the byelection victories as an endorsement of such party policies as employment insurance reform and deficit reduction. But that does not mean that the Liberals should go to the polls this fall. "I still think that we have 'miles-to-go' commitments to keep. The basics of a sound economy are there. Now we have to translate those factors into tangible realities like job creation." In other words, the Liberals may have won big on Oscar night. But as most politicians have learned, they cannot take their public for granted.

Maclean's April 8, 1996