The voters of Willowdale and Toronto Centre went to the polls in two of four federal by-elections being held throughout the country last night, each one a race widely thought to be a barometer of Liberal party fortunes should a spring election be triggered in the coming weeks.
Bob Rae, former New Democratic premier of Ontario and one-time leadership candidate for the Liberal party, won a solid victory in Toronto Centre, capturing almost 60 per cent of the votes tallied, with 14,187.
Rae, running for the Liberals, defeated New Democrat El-Farouk Khaki and Green Party candidate Chris Tindal, who came in second and third respectively, with Khaki barely coming out ahead with 3,299 votes to Tindal’s 3,263 – a margin of just 36 votes.
While the NDP and Green Party candidates jockeyed for second and third place, Conservative Donald Meredith came in fourth with 2,982 votes at 12.5 per cent.
In Willowdale, former Liberal leadership contender Martha Hall Findley coasted to victory over Conservative Maureen Harquail 13,524 votes to 6,864, with the Green Party’s Lou Carcasole and the NDP’s Rini Ghosh coming in a distant third and forth.
The Green Party captured 5.8 per cent of the vote with 1,325 ballots cast in their favour compared to the NDP’s dismal showing of 1,084 votes at 4.8 per cent.
Khaki pointed to his own insufficient exposure to voters and a wider apprehension toward change as the reason for his defeat in Toronto Centre, but maintained that he would continue to campaign in the future.
“What I heard at the door, and what I heard on the streets was that people are unhappy with our government and they want a change,” he said. “But I think people are afraid of what change means and how to go about effecting that change. But I’ll continue to do what I’ve been doing … and we’ll continue the fight.”
Rae attributed his victory to “a positive vision” that he brought to voters, and he looks forward to “getting back into the middle of things again” when he takes his seat in the House of Commons.
“I think (the party’s) values have always been closer to people,” he said. “That’s what brought it home in the end, (and) that’s what made the difference.”
When asked what he felt was his next item on his agenda, he smiled and said “sleep.”
Dr. Nelson Wiseman, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto predicted “a slam dunk” for Rae.
“Bob Rae will have a bigger margin of victory (over his opponents) than (Bill Graham, the last MP to run in Toronto Centre) did,” he said.
Bill Graham last won the riding for the Liberals in 2006 with 52.2 per cent, compared to Rae’s 59.2 per cent. Graham’s retirement in 2007 left his seat in parliament vacant, thus necessitating yesterday’s by-election.
The other by-elections yesterday took place in Vancouver Quadra and in Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River, Saskatchewan. Liberal candidate Joyce Murray barely defeated Conservative Deborah Meredith in Vancouver, while Conservative Rob Clark defeated Liberal Joan Beatty in the Churchill River riding.
While the strong Liberal victories in Toronto may have boosted morale for the party, the narrow victory in Vancouver and decisive defeat in Saskatchewan may yet spell trouble for the Liberals and their embattled leader, Stephane Dion.
Dion appeared to shun potential star candidate and former Progressive Conservative David Orchard in favour of Joan Beatty, hand-picking her for the nomination despite objections from Orchard and party officials in the riding.
The strong showing of the Green Party in yet another by-election bodes well for that party, coming close to a second-place showing in Toronto Centre and outperforming the New Democrats in Willowdale for third place. The increase in the Green Party’s share of the votes since 2006 seems to show that the party continues to build momentum despite not having yet won a single seat in Ottawa.
All four of the ridings in today’s by-elections were previously held by Liberal MPs, each one of them resigning their posts last year.