One can read too much into any by-election result, I suppose. And it's particularly dangerous for a commentator from far away to divine profound truths from the results of an election to which he paid scant attention until the final tally appeared on the Internet.
Still, maybe distance lends an opportunity to see the forest despite all the trees, as the professional pundits of what remains of the mainstream media certainly failed to do in the case of Thursday's five provincial by-elections in Ontario.
The media narrative leading up to the by-elections was that Ontario voters were set to punish the province’s still-governing Liberals for the sins of former premier Dalton McGuinty by turning entirely to the loony market-fundamentalist, anti-union Conservative fringe led by the thoroughly dislikable Tim Hudak.
Indeed, to those few of us paying any attention out here on the Great Plains of Alberta, it sounded very much as if Hudak's Vandal horde would triumph in all five ridings in preparation for sweeping away the last vestiges of Liberalism in Rome Upon the Lake in the next general election, whenever that takes place. Farewell Premier Kathleen Wynne… get used to it … yadda yadda.
In the event, of course, something quite different transpired. For one thing, Wynne's government hung on to two of the five seats -- not at all a bad outcome in a situation in which it is said, stereotypically and usually accurately, that the Opposition has the edge.
For another, the New Democrats, took two of the others, so not a bad night for them either -- depending on how they play it now.
As for the putatively resurgent Tories, they only managed to win one seat -- and that one narrowly, with a high-profile candidate in a location heavily influenced by Toronto municipal politics. Heck, the guy was even helped on the doorstep by Toronto's ever-popular Conservative Mayor Rob Ford … I got that right, didn't I?
Regardless, from way out here in the oil-soaked hinterlands this sounds like a pretty acceptable result from Wynne's perspective. It was a potentially good jumping off point for NDP Leader Andrea Horwath as well -- if the NDP can manage to avoid snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, as New Democrats have been known to do, or leaving the impression they could split the vote sufficiently to get the disagreeable Hudak elected by accident.
For Hudak? Not so good, I'd say, although I suppose he can take some comfort from the fact his candidates placed second everywhere they didn't win and the confidence he will remain the favourite of the media's fanciful story line.
As for the media, never inclined to let the facts get in the way of a compelling narrative, it's sticking to its story that losing three out of five seats on a night of by-elections amounts to a shellacking and humbling punishment for Wynne's Liberals.
For her part, Wynne slyly acknowledged both this possibility and the media's narrative in her post-vote summation -- hoping, presumably, that voters can be persuaded they have now punished her Liberals enough and will swing back to the government in the next general election out of fear of what Hudak might do.
Indeed, just such a phenomenon may explain what happened in the April 2012 election here in Alberta, in which voters wanted to punish the Progressive Conservatives under then-newly minted Premier Alison Redford, but not so severely that they punished themselves by electing a still-scary Wildrose government.
When polls in the final hours before the election began to indicate a Wildrose government was a real possibility, and with no third party like the NDP also in a position to form a government, nervous voters swung back to the Tories under Redford. Arguably, what most Alberta voters really would have liked to have seen was a term of two of Conservative minorities.
Since the election, by the way, Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith has taken the opposite tack to Hudak -- working hard to appear less radical and keeping her party's loonier followers under tight control.
Wynne must surely hope that the minority government she inherited from McGuinty followed by last Thursday's by-election results, carefully spun, will be enough to persuade Ontario voters to act like Albertans and send her back on the rebound with a comfortable majority.
Given Thursday's results, that outcome doesn't seem all that farfetched.
This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.
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