Winnipeg win saves Ignatieff

The liberals' come-from-behind victory shows they are still in the game, but it is very bad news for Layton and the NDP

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The Gazette, Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A furious spin battle broke out in Ottawa yesterday between the Liberals and Conservatives as to who won and who lost in Monday's three federal byelections.

The answer is simple. The Conservatives won two seats, easily holding Dauphin in rural Manitoba, and gaining Vaughan in suburban Toronto from the Liberals, a major breakthrough in the suburban belt around Toronto.

But the Liberals won a share of bragging rights for the evening, scoring a huge upset win over the NDP in Winnipeg North. The Liberal candidate, Kevin Lamoureux, might have enjoyed name recognition as a long-serving member of the provincial legislature, but he was also starting from third place, more than 50 points back. You don't see that every day.

The losers were Jack Layton and the NDP, who failed, and failed miserably, to get out their vote in an inner city riding that has voted NDP since it was the CCF. A party whose candidate won 62 per cent of the vote in the 2008 election swooned to 41 per cent in a by-election, losing by five points to a party that won only nine per cent in the general election.

And in Vaughan, the NDP vote was measured in the hundreds, not the thousands, collapsing from 9.6 per cent to 1.7 per cent. That's almost as worrisome for the Tories as it is for the NDP, since the Conservative count on the NDP to split votes with Liberals on the left.

Mind you, name recognition makes a difference in by-elections, both of incumbents on the way out, and star candidates on the way in. In Winnipeg, Judy Wasylycia-Leis won by 40 points over the second place Tory candidate in 2008, and Lamoureux was a local brand name for the Liberals in the by-election. In Vaughan, Maurizio Belivacqua held the riding for the Liberals for 22 years, and won it by 15 points over the Conservatives in the last election. Julian Fantino, who won the riding for the Conservatives, is a former Toronto and Ontario police commissioner.

It was always understood, when Belivacqua stepped down to run successfully for mayor of Vaughan, that the Conservatives would support him in a race he won with ease. In return, it was equally understood he wouldn't support the Liberals in the byelection, under the pretext that as mayor he should remain neutral. In what proved to be a close race, that was a factor. Fantino won by three points, 49 to 46 per cent. And it was exquisite revenge by Belivacqua on Michael Ignatieff for reneging on an immigration reform deal he had negotiated with Jason Kenney. He did for Iggy what Iggy did for him -nothing.

One Liberal MP, who was canvassing in Vaughan, said the Liberals did better at the door than they did on the ground. In other words, the equity of the Liberal brand nearly compensated for the deficiencies of their campaign. As this MP explained: "People know Julian but they've always voted Liberal."

What had been shaping up as a blowout for Fantino also tightened up in the closing days of the campaign, as the Liberals ran a drive-by smear campaign against him. On successive days in question period last week, the Liberals used precious time to try to get at things such as his expense account for the G8 and G20 summits. They even had Justin Trudeau do a video alleging Fantino was disrespectful of the Charter of Rights. As if that were top of mind in the suburbs.

However furiously the Liberals spin Vaughan as a near escape or even a moral victory, the fact remains that they lost a fortress seat in vote-rich 905-land. And lost it by a thousand votes. It means all the other 905s are in play. This is not to suggest that the Tories are about to breach the Liberal walls of downtown Toronto, but they could have it pretty much surrounded after the next election.

Ignatieff should send Layton a thank-you note. Because the NDP failed to show up on Monday, Iggy dodged a huge bullet. Had the Liberals gone zero for three, yesterday would have been a very bad day at the office for him. It would have been all the more difficult for him to hold his MPs in line in supporting the reprofiled training mission in Afghanistan.

As it was, he was able to stand before the cameras and, quite legitimately, claim a measure of victory.

When all is said and done, the end result of the byelections might be to take a spring election off the table. After their dismal showing Monday, the NDP might have second thoughts about forcing an election on the budget.

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