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.