Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Winter by-elections force Wynne's Liberals into tough spot ahead of spring budget and possible election

The Niagara Falls result in the 2011 Ontario provincial election was one of the narrowest wins by a Liberal incumbent in that election.  Former MPP Kim Craitor, the incumbent since 2003, held on by only 500 or so votes in a tight three-way race, just ahead of the Tories with the NDP running a strong third.  Craitor quit his seat in September, forcing a by-election call by March 24, 2014.

In addition, Tory MPP Peter Shurman quit his Thornhill seat late last year after being thrown under the bus by his leader, Tim Hudak, for expensing travel and housing accommodations after moving from his north Toronto riding - ironically - to Niagara-on-the-Lake, which is located in the Niagara Falls riding.  Strangely enough, had Shurman had his way and run in Niagara Falls in 2011, he might've been able to win it, thus negating the need for both of these by-elections.  A by-election to fill Thornhill doesn't need to be called until mid-2014, which could easily happen after an anticipated spring election.

At first thought, it seems strange that Premier Kathleen Wynne and her brain trust are apparently considering calling both by-elections this week for February 13th, 2014.  Despite hospital-related goodies being tossed around Niagara Falls this week, both by-elections will no doubt prove very difficult for the governing Liberals to win.  They're running two decent city councillors in both ridings (Joyce Morocco in Niagara Falls and Sandra Yeung Racco in Thornhill).  But as recent history has shown us, the Ontario Liberals have had no luck hanging onto seats in by-elections outside of either Toronto or Ottawa, let alone picking up seats previously held by the opposition.

Southwestern Ontario turned into a dead zone for the party after it waited months to call by-elections in London West and Windsor-Tecumseh.  Former Liberal strongholds turned into Liberal wastelands with the party placing a very poor third in both by-elections there last summer.  Only the two wins in Scarborough-Guildwood and Ottawa South, plus the near victory in Etobicoke-Lakeshore (which would've been a Liberal win had Doug Holyday not chosen to run for the Ontario PCs) numbed the pain of those dreadful losses.

Taking away Thornhill from the Tories in a by-election seems an awfully tall order.  The most likely result is a narrow Tory win if their candidate is decent.

With the NDP likely to nominate Niagara Falls city councillor Wayne Gates (who polled ahead of both Morocco and Tory nominee Bart Maves in the 2010 municipal election), it's beginning to look like Andrea Horwath's NDP is looking at another by-election pickup in a riding that should otherwise go to the Tories.

So Premier Wynne's Grits seem to be rushing into two by-elections they appear unlikely to win.  What's the strategy in this?  Dampen Liberal spirits and embolden Horwath on the eve of a provincial budget so she decides to bring the government down and force a provincial election for later this spring?   The Grits would have a much better chance of winning both seats in the provincial election, should the Liberals manage to run a decent campaign and hang on to power, as I currently predict.  Holding by-elections in February only to lose Thornhill to some no-name Tory and Niagara Falls to the NDP will not bolster Liberal enthusiasm for a provincial vote.

I'm trying to see the intelligence in this apparent strategy and it's baffling.  Perhaps the Liberals have polling that puts them ahead in Thornhill with Yeung Racco's name on the ballot.  Perhaps they're in similar decent shape in Niagara Falls, helped with the cash promised to plan new area hospitals and invest in the region's wine industry.   

Or perhaps the government hopes to survive in the legislature into late April/early May with a budget approximately one year after the last one (May 2, 2013).  Thus, the Niagara Falls by-election would have to be called and held before any possible provincial budget and subsequent election.  Better to get the tough by-elections out of the way now perhaps while the Liberals have decent candidates and teams in place and the opposition parties have less time to do the leg work in order to win.  The Tories don't even have their candidate yet in Thornhill.

So perhaps there is method to Wynne's winter by-election madness.  We'll see.

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