With the Throne Speech coming next week there have been lots of rumours surrounding it. Not only are people speculating what will (or won’t) be in the speech itself, many others are wondering about if this will be a governing speech or more of a kick-off for a snap general election. The idea of a minority government triggering a general election in the middle of a global pandemic is one that strikes me as a terrible idea. I said as much when it came to the election that just happened in New Brunswick, I feel the same way about a rumoured snap election in British Columbia and the same goes for a Federal election right now.
It’s a bad, bad, bad idea that forces us to question the motives of a government that would roll the dice in such a dangerous moment. New Brunswick got lucky that no one got sick or worse because of the exposure risks from that election, but that doesn’t mean that others who try to pull the same trick will be as lucky. In the meantime, everyone is reading whatever tea leaves come out into the public domain and how that might affect an ultimate decision on if there will be a Fall general election or not. Well this afternoon an interesting shoe dropped that adds to all the speculation out there:
The timing of these by-election calls is very interesting on a few levels. Firstly, it should be noted that both of these seats have been open for less than a month and by law there didn’t need to be a by-election for another five months. That means that Prime Minister Trudeau didn’t have to call either of these by-elections until February 2021 at the latest. It’s not abnormal for a government to wait longer to run by-elections in empty seats, but it’s notable when a government decides to bring a by-election fast in the best of times. The idea that you would rush ahead with a by-election now, in the middle of a pandemic, when cases are starting to rise in Ontario, stands out just that much more.
So why call these by-elections early? It’s not like the government had candidates in place for a long time, itching to go. They appointed both of their candidates yesterday, in the process bypassing any chance for local Liberals in Toronto Centre and York Centre to make their choice about who would represent them in this race. It’s not like with two fewer MPs the government was at risk of falling because even in this minority government, the vote margin between a government standing or falling isn’t that small. Also if that were the case, that would also assume a result was assured for the government side. In Toronto Centre it’s pretty safe to say that the Liberal candidate and now former CTV hose Marcie Ien should win rather handily (more on Toronto Centre in a moment). But in York Centre things are less certain. In the Harper years the Conservatives did hold the seat after Ken Dryden held it for the Liberals. The red team won it back in 2015 but if the Conservatives are looking at possibly winning government whenever the next general election come, seats like York Centre would be very high on their target list. So a Liberal win there is far form a sure thing, which makes this decision all the more questionable.
When it comes to if there will be a general election, these by-election calls won’t change that situation at all. Under the rules, if a general election is triggered during a by-election, the by-election just gets rolled into it and they continue on to election day. We saw that in 2015 in Sudbury after former NDP MP Glenn Thibeault resigned to run for the Ontario Liberals. That by-election was called very late, and with the early election call in August of that year, it was rolled into that campaign.
So why do this now? What are the advantages for doing so? Well from my perspective, this all comes back to partisan advantage for the Liberals. Firstly, they have two solid candidates in both races, which gives you an advantage. Secondly, given that York Centre would be a Conservative target when it came up again, going so early after Erin O’Toole assumed the Conservative leadership would reduce their chance by simply eliminating the time they would have to get ready for that race. Going early helps to blunt what your opponents could do and with Toronto Centre being more of a certainty, going early feels more about trying to deny the Conservatives another GTA seat than anything else.
But in Toronto Centre there is also another reason to go early that may not matter in the grand scheme of things, but I don’t think is insignificant. The Greens are just wrapping up their leadership race, with the winner being announced at the beginning of October. It’s not clear who is really running in front in that race but given that none of the contestants are presently MPs, it would be natural to find a chance to try to get your new leader elected to the House earlier than later. Two of the front runners in that race are former Ontario Liberal MMP & Cabinet Minister Glen Murray and lawyer Annamie Paul, who has been the front runner among the candidates when it comes to fundraising. Toronto Centre is usually a Liberal/NDP race but if either Murray or Paul were to run, Toronto Centre would be very high on the list of ridings they would seek to run in. Murray was the MPP for Toronto Centre and Paul was the Green candidate in Toronto Centre in 2019, where she finished 4th with just over 7% of the vote.
Given the historical advantage that smaller parties have in by-elections by being able to marshal and focus their resources on a single riding, a new Green leader with real connections to the electorate in Toronto Centre could potentially make a sure win a much harder race. Back in the 2013 by-election in that riding, the NDP put a good scare into the Liberals by being able to focus their entire Toronto organization on the riding. In the by-election held in that riding previous to that in 2008 you saw a similar thing with the Greens, where they had their best percentage finish there with over 13% of the vote against Bob Rae. And all of that happened without a party leader running against the Liberals.
By going early like this, it likely blunts the chances for either Murray or Paul to run here. Given that the Greens themselves are fully focused on running their leadership race, they surely are unable to mount the resources to run that focused campaign that could put a scare into anyone if everything fell into place. But while that may be part of the calculus here, I believe that this is more about York Centre than Toronto Centre.
All of this is to say is that while these by-elections did eventually need to happen, they didn’t need to happen now. The only reason why they are happening now, like what happened in New Brunswick and what might soon happen in British Columbia, is because it’s to the partisan advantage of the government calling them. In the best of times that kind of partisan thinking bothers me, but these are far from the best of times. The idea of going to the polls, any polls, when you absolutely don’t have to in the middle of a pandemic is irresponsible in my view. Doing it because it’s to your partisan advantage is even worse. But what’s done is done, it’s happening. The writs have been drawn in those ridings and off the go. For the sake of this government, they just better hope and pray that they get as lucky as the folks in New Brunswick did. That very well might happen but eventually the luck runs out. I just hope that it’s not the people of Toronto Centre or York Centre that are left feeling the pain when that luck finally runs dry.