Tuesday, March 18, 2008

My take on Quadra: B.C. urban voters give Dion another chance...

Last night's by-elections turned out pretty much as I expected and/or hoped. I had hoped that Martha Hall Findlay and Bob Rae would romp on home in their Toronto ridings, and they didn't disappoint. They crushed their opponents. The results were the best they could be for the Grits. The Tories were stagnant in the semi-suburban riding of Willowdale and were humiliated in Toronto Centre.

The Liberals increased their margins of victory in two out of three strongholds. Yet of course the Tories are crowing about their near-win in Vancouver Quadra.

As a Torontonian, I can only guess what exactly happened out there. While both urbane and cosmopolitan, there's no doubt voters in Vancouver are different in key ways from those in Toronto. For one, Vancouver voters are a part of the Harper universe. Torontonians have been explicitly neglected by the Harper government from the beginning. When Harper was shut out of both Vancouver and Toronto in 2006, he recruited turncoat David Emerson from Vancouver-Kingsway into his cabinet. He made no similar gestures to Toronto MPs, claiming that Jim Flaherty way out in Whitby can speak and represent Toronto's interests.

Clearly the Tories have written off most of the G.T.A. and the results last night reflect that.

But the Tories have not written off Vancouver. They put up a very strong candidate, ran a negative, stealth campaign and focussed on appealing to Quadra's Asian communities.

So voters in Vancouver Quadra had to make a decision: stick with their usual voting habits or switch back to the Tories (the riding was solidly Tory up until John Turner won it for the Grits in 1984.)

There's no doubt that Stephane Dion is very far from sealing the deal with Canadians. Quite the opposite. The poor guy has yet to make much of an impression at all on most English-speaking Canadians. The forums in which Dion's strengths are highlighted - intimate, one-on-one interviews in which the strength of his character and integrity shine through, the image that made so many Liberals take a leap of faith in 2006 - are not the forums in which most Canadians have seen Dion lately. They continue to see him ask awkward questions in the House of Commons, provide tiny sound bites during scrums or give laboured speeches in front of packed halls.

Currently, English Canadians don't really know what Mr. Dion is offering. They know what his opponents are saying about him. But most voters are pretty fair and intend to wait to judge for themselves.

While Dion remains an enigma to most Canadians, a kind of funk seems to have set in among voters. Most are unhappy with all their current choices. Some, but not enough to win a majority, seem to be sticking with the incumbent Tories. But more are moving to the Greens. We saw that last night in Toronto and Vancouver.

Vancouver is clearly in Stephen Harper's sights. Quadra was no doubt a seat they wanted badly. If the Tories had won, it would've been disastrous for Dion's leadership, as we know.

Instead, the voters of Quadra have given Dion a bit of a reprieve, by the slimmest of margins, of course. Considering Dion is almost a non-entity out on the west coast, even a win is pretty incredible. Quadra voters signalled a desire for change last night, but also indicated they are far from sold on Dion's Liberals.

Dion has a great story to tell Canadians. Clearly, Canadians are waiting to hear it. My question to the Liberal brain trust in Ottawa and to Stephane Dion in particular: what are you waiting for? Get out there and tell it. Stop letting your opponents define you before voters. It's time to get on with telling Dion's amazing story.


ALW said...

Thank God you're a former political staffer, otherwise I'd be concerned about your powers of insight.

I don’t know how winning by expected margins rock-solid Liberal ridings with big name, high profile candidates suggests the results were “the best they could be for the Grits”. More accurately, the results were exactly as expected. I also don’t see how the Tories can be humiliated in Toronto Centre when they fully expected to lose by a wide margin.

It sounds like what you are saying is that by recruiting David Emerson, the Tories attracted more votes in Vancouver Quadra. That’s a fascinating theory, and I don’t see the correlation at all, but supposing it’s true, would that mean that poaching MPs is a good idea?

As for your “urbane and cosmopolitan” comment...you’ve basically summed up the problem with the Liberal Party. That is, they’re urbane and cosmopolitan, and most of Canada isn’t. So yeah, you’re right that the Tories have “written off” most of the GTA, if by that you mean “continued to push policies attractive to everyone except Toronto”. But the flipside of this is that by being so urbane and cosmopolitan, the Liberals have written off everywhere except Toronto, which is precisely why they were trounced in Outremont by the NDP and had a near-death experience in Vancouver Quadra last night (and no, nobody thought it was going to be that close. Not even the higher ups at Tory HQ). Before, at least the Grits had a lock on the big three. Now, they’re losing ground even in Montreal and Vancouver, to say nothing of everywhere else.

You seem to be hiding behind the excuse that people don’t really know Mr.Dion, but the fact of the matter is that the more exposure he’s received, the worse things have become. Do you really suppose that 36 days of wall-to-wall coverage of the man is somehow going to improve his odds?

Oldschool said...

When you consider that in Van Quadra the Cons campaign was low key, Harper did not attend . . . and Dion was there many times and spent much money . . . yet, it was very close . . . wonder how close it will be next time??

Sean S. said...

I would also point out that it was the Green's who benefited the most from the decreased Liberal vote percent, while the CPC only picked up 6+%. Not exactly a resounding endorsement of Harper & Co, but more of a resounding rejection of the Liberals...protest vote or not.

Ron said...

"no doubt voters in Vancouver are different in key ways from those in Toronto"

ya - In Ontario, we've remember 8 years of Flarety et all to remind us what they want to do (are are doing) to us.

Even the terrible opposition being provided to the Harper/Harris group is not enough to turn voters away from their Liberal home.

Gazetteer said...

"Vancouver is clearly in Stephen Harper's sights. Quadra was no doubt a seat they wanted badly"

If so, he certainly had a funny way of showing it.

Actually, I think they played a cat and mouse game of 'low expectations' such that this close call looks like a victory.

How else to explain the StealthCon Candidacy of Deborah Meredith.

(details at my place if you're interested)

Matt Guerin said...

Most people in English Canada continue to know very little about Dion, they've only seen tiny bits of him through the media and he doesn't present well through that narrow lense, as we all know. I'm saying once he gets a bigger platform and more opportunities to speak to Canadians when they are truly listening, he'll sink or swim. We'll see.

As I said in my post, he has no real profile in BC still, yet they managed to win the seat anyway. So there is hope.

It's true that Dion has allowed himself to be defined by his opponents thus far, but it's not all over. He still has a chance to overpower that with his own message. Voters already know Harper and Layton very well - Dion remains the only question mark.

The point is the Liberal vote went up in Toronto, while the Tory vote either stagnated or collapsed. I'm sorry - a government that can only win fourth place with only 12% of the vote in Toronto Centre is not a national government. And in Vancouver, the Tories only went up 5 points, the Greens made the most gains. So Harper continues to flatline.

The Sask result looks simply like a protest vote against Dion's appointment. Yes it's a loss, but more a protest against tactics, not so much an endorsement of Harper's policies...

Can Dion improve and do better? Absolutely. Will he? I'm sure of it. It's funny all the Tories here are not, it wasn't so long ago everybody wrote off Stephen Harper as unelectable...

Koby said...

I can not begin to tell you how badly Dion plays out here. One problem is Dion's English. His accent is strong and his ability to express himself in English is not nearly what it is in French and well that does seem to be a problem in Toronto it certainly is here. Another problem is that Vancouver has a very fiscally conservative media. There are no liberals or social democrats to speak of and very few Red Tories working at Vancouver Sun, Vancouver Province, CKNW and Canwest Global or any of the local paper, which are all owned by Canwest. This is not Toronto. There is no Toronto Star. There are however plenty of libertarians. Dion needs to work with what he has and no that does not mean trying to out tax cut the Conservatives at every turn. Doing so would be stirring the agenda in exactly the direction the Conservatives want.

A better plan of attack would be paint Conservatives as being social conservative and themselves as being socially liberal. Vancouver is socially liberal city. By and large SSM played very well here and there is strong support for drug reform of all kinds. However, in order make such claims believable the Liberals have to put their money where there mouth is an adopt policies that will appeal to libertarians. Rhetoric alone means nothing.
In the past I have said that a promise to legalize marijuana would cause libertarian dominated Vancouver Sun and Fraser Institute to be giddy excitement and would play right into Vancouverites pride as being the home of BC bud.

>>>> But the flipside of this is that by being so urbane and cosmopolitan, the Liberals have written off everywhere except Toronto, which is precisely why they were trounced in Outremont by the NDP and had a near-death experience in Vancouver Quadra last night (and no, nobody thought it was going to be that close.

Montreal and Vancouver are not urbane and cosmopolitan? I can assure you they are. The problem with the Liberals is that they have not nearly as socially liberal as those cities would like them to be.