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September 15, 2012

What leaders can learn from byelection

Geoffrey Stevens

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The NDP victory in the Kitchener-Waterloo byelection Thursday sends a message to all three Ontario parties and their leaders.

For Dalton McGuinty and the Liberals, the message is clear and simple: smarten up. The voters of Ontario told you in the provincial election last October that they were fed up. They didn’t like you very much, not any more. They thought your government was off-track and inept, if not corrupt. They took away your majority. The electors of Kitchener-Waterloo underlined that rebuke by re-electing Progressive Conservative Elizabeth Witmer in October.

What possessed you, Mr. Premier, to think you could regain a majority by sneaking in through the byelection back door? You assumed the riding would be easy plucking with Witmer gone? You ignored two political dicta: never assume anything, and never underestimate the electorate.

You nominated a capable candidate in Eric Davis. His third-place finish is a wake-up call. That back door has been slammed shut. The people meant what they said in October: no majority.

For Tim Hudak and the PCs, the message is: give your head a shake. You will never have a better opportunity than you had last fall when the aging, gaffe-prone McGuinty Liberals went for a third term. You couldn’t do it then and you couldn’t do it in K-W on Thursday. The painful truth is that voters like you even less than they like McGuinty. You are too negative, too strident and too far right — too Mike Harris — for most Ontarians. “Moderation” and “co-operation” are foreign words to you.

Your byelection nominee, Tracey Weiler, was not a very strong candidate, but that doesn’t matter. She could not have won even if she’d had years, rather than months, of political experience. No Tory was going to win this byelection. It was as much a referendum on your leadership as it was on McGuinty’s. Both were found wanting. Maybe it’s time for both of you to consider a career change.

Your statement Friday blaming an influx of “troops” from the public service unions for your party’s defeat is self-serving sour grapes. In byelections, all parties recruit volunteers from wherever they can get them. If they can, they flood the riding with eager supporters. It’s what byelections are all about. It helps make them exciting, and unpredictable.

But union “muscle,” as you call it, did not win Kitchener-Waterloo for the NDP. It won because it was better organized than the others, because it had a message that resonated among voters — and because it had the best candidate. Make no mistake: Catherine Fife was a very good candidate, as impressive as any I have seen in byelections over the years.

For Andrea Horwath and the NDP, the message is: savour your victory but proceed with caution. You won a byelection. Don’t read too much into it. You did not launch an orange wave. Winning a byelection on the crest of a protest vote is one thing. It is quite another thing to establish ownership of a riding the way Witmer did, for 22 years.

There are still more Liberals than New Democrats in Kitchener-Waterloo, notwithstanding the popular vote on Thursday. And these days, there are more Conservatives than Liberals (or New Democrats) both in K-W and in other ridings across the region (with the exception of Guelph).

Byelection results are often reversed in subsequent general elections as voters, having registered their protest, return to the party where they feel most at home. That could well happen to Fife and the NDP.

The other two parties will regard Thursday as an aberration. They will redouble their efforts to knock Fife off and return Kitchener-Waterloo to what each regards as the riding’s rightful owner.

Fife was a good candidate. She will have to invest all her effort into becoming a very good MPP. She may remind voters of Liz Witmer, but she is not Witmer. She will have to earn her own popularity — and her re-election.

Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. He welcomes comments at

From the Waterloo Region Record, Sept. 8, 2012

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