After months of campaigning, conjecturing, and speculating the results of the 2012 federal by-elections are in, and … drum roll, please … on the face of it, nothing has changed.
In Durham, Ontario, Conservative Erin O'Toole was elected to replace Conservative Bev Orange … err, rather Bev Oda. In Calgary Centre, Alberta, Conservative Joan Crockatt was elected to replace Conservative Lee Richardson who resigned to join Alison Redford's provincial Tory administration. And in Victoria, British Columbia, New Democrat Murray Rankin was elected to replace outgoing New Democrat Denise Savoie who stepped down for health reasons.
Despite this, there has been an exceptional degree of interest in the results of these by-elections. As is frequently the case, they are seen as an interim political barometer reflecting how the public is inclining towards the government in the interregnum between federal elections. In 2012, particular interest was focused on both the Calgary Centre and Victoria ridings where there was the sense of unconventional political currents being at play. What, in fact, do the 2012 electoral results tell us about the current political temperature?
Over the past six years in Durham relatively little has changed. Conservative numbers have largely remained stable in the 50 per cent range, indicating that no matter what degree of competence/incompetence is exhibited by the Harper Conservatives and their representatives, the majority of Durham voters will reliably fail to pay attention and will continue to vote Tory blue. In the 2011 federal election, the Liberals and NDP exchanged second and third places, and the gap increased in 2012 in favour of the NDP. But, with an absolute majority in Durham, the opposition parties are of no immediate threat to the Conservatives, either individually or en masse.
In Calgary, a very unusual dynamic came into play with the Liberal's Harvey Locke and the Green's Chris Turner increasing their party's support dramatically (1.9- and 2.3-fold respectively) at the expense of both the Conservatives (represented by Joan Crockatt) and the NDP (represented by Dan Meades). Clearly, a large number of political factors were responsible including the lackluster performance of Crockatt and her previous support of the Wildrose Party, the excellent campaigns, experience, and personal qualities of Locke and Turner, the changing composition of the constituency, etc. However, at the end of the day, all this political foment with the Liberal, Green, and NDP parties, who collectively polled 62.1 per cent of the vote, has led to naught since the Conservatives with 36.9 per cent, take home the political cake.
In Victoria the political fortunes of the Conservatives and Liberals have continued to decline. The dramatic difference in the 2012 by-election was the tremendous increase in Green Party support from 11.6 per cent in 2011 to 34.3 per cent in 2012. The election teetered back and forth all evening between the NDP's Murray Rankin (a University of Victoria law professor) and the Green's Donald Galloway (another University of Victoria law professor) in a hard-fought and close contest. Both are highly qualified candidates with strong support in the riding, and both benefited from campaigning by their respective party leaders. The by-election was ultimately won by the NDP with 37.2 per cent of the vote.
While this contest makes for entertaining political jockeying, in terms of a larger Canadian political calculus, it makes little difference if the riding of Victoria is represented in a majority Conservative Parliament by a progressive environmental law professor of orange political stripe, or a progressive citizenship law professor of green political stripe. Seen through another lens, so long as Canada labours under an antiquated first-past-the post electoral system, this heated internecine contest between fellow progressives plays into vote-fragmentation and the divide-and-conquer political strategy of the Harper Conservatives. It doesn't lead to substantive political change.
If this set of by-elections pre-sage anything, it is that if progressives of all stripes don't find practical and effective strategies for surmounting vote fragmentation, there is every possibility that the Harper Conservatives could ride up the middle in 2015 and win yet another majority government, despite the majority of Canadians opposing their policies. Political contests are important, but only if they carry with them the tangible possibility of the expression of the political philosophies that are in contention. Otherwise they amount to little more than academic political exercises.
One final set of data offers a cautionary note on how much one can read into the results of by-elections. The graph above shows how dramatically lower voter turnout was in all three of the November, 2012 by-elections compared to the typical results in these ridings during a federal election. The turnout (of registered voters) in 2012 was 35.8 per cent in Durham, 29.4 per cent in Calgary Centre, and 43.9 per cent in Victoria, a much smaller fraction of eligible voters than normally shows up at the polls even in Canada's anemic elections (61.1 per cent of eligible voters turned out in 2011).
Christopher Majka is a biologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and arts advocate. He conducts research on the ecology and biodiversity of beetles. He is a research associate of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and a member of the Project Democracy team.