Takeaways From the Federal Byelection Results

October 28, 2020 Updated: November 1, 2020

It may not be wise to read too much into what the two federal byelections on Oct. 26 mean, but the results do offer some interesting observations.

The Liberals held on to the Ontario ridings of Toronto Centre and York Centre, both considered Liberal strongholds, but the wins were narrow compared to 50 percent of the vote captured in both ridings in the 2019 general election.

Paul Rowe, a political science professor at Trinity Western University, advises caution about drawing too many conclusions from a byelection that had only a 25-30 percent voter turnout.

However, he adds, “the fact that the Liberals came close to losing York Centre to the Conservatives was remarkable, given that Toronto is something of a Liberal fortress. And [Green Leader] Annamie Paul’s ability to crystallize the opposition in Toronto Centre also indicates that Liberal support in their key constituencies cannot be counted on.”

CTV personality Marci Ien won Bill Morneau’s former riding of Toronto Centre with 42 percent of the vote. Paul took 32.7 percent; NDP’s Brian Chang, 17 percent; and Benjamin Sharma, 5.7 percent for the Conservatives.

In York Centre, Liberal Ya’ara Saks received 45.7 percent of the vote to beat Conservative Julius Tiangson, who received 41.8 percent. NDP candidate Andrea Vásquez Jiménez took 5.8 percent, and People’s Party Leader Maxime Bernier was fourth with 3.6 percent.

University of Toronto political science professor Nelson Wiseman saw red flags for the NDP.

“The party that’s in trouble is the NDP, which … isn’t going to win rural ridings beyond the north, so it’s got to do well in cities like Toronto and Vancouver. And the results yesterday showed that a lot of people that had voted NDP swung over to the greens, at least in Toronto Centre.”

Wiseman says the Liberals also have reason to pause. “The Liberals were prepared, it looked like, to have an election. Now with these results I think there they’re a little more apprehensive about having one.”

On the other hand, the pandemic helped ruling parties in recent provincial elections, he said.

“In B.C., you had a minority converted into a majority. In Saskatchewan, you had a party that increased its majority. And in New Brunswick you also had a party that went from being a minority to getting a majority. So those things are all encouraging for the Liberals, and the Liberals still are ahead in the polls.”

A telephone poll released Oct. 27 by Mainstreet Research showed the Liberals leading with 35.8 percent support, while the Conservatives had 34 percent, followed by the NDP at 15 percent, the Bloc Quebecois at 5.4 percent, the Greens at 5 percent, and the People’s Party at 3.4 percent. In Ontario, the Liberals had 40.2 percent support and the Conservatives, 35.7 percent.

The byelection results followed a week of drama in the House of Commons. On Oct. 21, Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner called for an anti-corruption probe into the WE Charity scandal and other Liberal pandemic spending. The Liberals declared it a confidence vote and defeated the motion 180-146 with the support of NDP, Green, and independent MPs.

“It’s unheard of that you’re having a confidence vote on the creation of a committee, but if you flip it over on the other side … [the Liberals] claim … that it would paralyze the government,” says Wiseman.

On Oct. 22, Rempel Garner moved that the House of Commons health committee scrutinize the pandemic response and disclose documents. Health Minister Patty Hajdu argued that the motion would impede the government’s ability to handle the pandemic.

“We need to stay focused on what matters now,” she said. “You don’t do the post-battle review in the middle of the fight.”

Procurement Minister Anita Anand also pushed back.

“I do not want to be back here to explain to Canadians that because of the disclosure that we were forced to make, we were not able to secure vaccines or personal protective equipment for Canadians because our suppliers chose to walk away,” she said. “That would be a highly unfortunate, if not a life-threatening, announcement to have to make.”

The motion passed 176-152 with support from all opposition parties. MPs will study the government’s procurement process for a vaccine, the Public Health Agency of Canada’s communications strategy, its evaluation of the World Health Organization’s advice, and more. The Liberals have until Nov. 30 to provide the relevant documents.

This political chess could lead to a federal election before then, says Rowe.

“For sound strategic reasons, Trudeau wants an election now,” he says.

“The decision to make opposition motions into confidence motions dares the opposition to bring down the government, which is relatively risk-free for the Liberals. It also forces the NDP to stick close to the Liberals, which does not help to improve their visibility.”