The outcome of last week’s byelection in the provincial riding of Whitby-Oshawa delivers at least three warnings for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario’s Liberal premier, Kathleen Wynne.
The byelection was called to fill a vacancy caused by the resignation of the popular Progressive Conservative MPP Christine Elliott, widow of former federal finance minister Jim Flaherty. Elliott quit after she was defeated for the Ontario PC leadership by Patrick Brown, a right-wing Conservative member of Parliament.
Sensing an opportunity to exploit this rift in her opponents’ ranks, Wynne threw her “A” team of cabinet ministers, MPPs and organizers into the battle. She imported Trudeau to star at a rally two days before the vote.
To put it bluntly, the Liberals got their butt kicked. The PC candidate, Lorne Coe, took 52.9 per cent of the vote to just 27.5 per cent for Liberal Elizabeth Roy; that was double the victory margin registered by Elliott in the 2014 provincial election.
The first takeaway for Wynne and Trudeau is this: the voters are not naive – they know the difference between federal and provincial politics and issues. Trudeau’s “sunny ways” may play in the federal theatre, but they don’t necessarily move votes in the provincial arena where Wynne and her beleaguered Liberals have their backs to the wall, with a general election two years away. It may be that Trudeau’s intervention in Whitby-Oshawa actually hurt the Liberal cause by making it appear that Wynne & Company were growing desperate.
The second takeaway: if he is wise, Trudeau will husband his political capital. His is not a bottomless reservoir of goodwill. Prime ministers do not normally wade into provincial political campaigns; they keep their distance, as befits their lofty status in Ottawa. They don’t risk their capital by investing it in an insignificant provincial byelection, like Whitby-Oshawa.
In Trudeau’s eyes, Wynne is not a premier like the others. They are as close as any pairing of prime minister and premier in recent memory. He owes her big time for her constant support from his election as Liberal leader in 2013 through the long, hard federal campaign last year. When he needed her, she had his back. The 80 seats he won in Ontario gave him his majority.
Loyalty is only part of it. Going forward, most of Trudeau’s grand plans require the cooperation and support of provincial and territorial governments. Wynne’s Ontario is the most important player on that chess board. The last thing Trudeau needs is a Stephen Harper-style Conservative premier at Queen’s Park.
This brings us to the third takeaway from Whitby-Oshawa: Trudeau’s good buddy and vital supporter is in trouble. She didn’t need the extra seat; she has a solid majority. But she wanted to win the seat to send a message that despite the opinion polls, budgets deficits and an accumulation of negative issues, the Ontario Liberals are still very much in the game. A win in Whitby-Oshawa would have given her government some momentum, which it sadly lacks.
It is still mired in the muck of the Dalton McGuinty years. The biggest issue that refuses to go away is the $1.1-billion gas plant scandal. It was the McGuinty government that, with seats on the line, decided to move the two gas-powered generating plants before and during the 2011 Ontario election campaign. That was McGuinty, not Wynne. But she was a member of his cabinet and co-chair of the Liberal campaign.
To make matters worse, two of McGuinty’s senior aides were charged last December with orchestrating a plan to delete from government computers thousands of emails and other files related to the gas-plant controversy.
Liberals fear the charges may come to trial as they are ramping up for their 2018 election campaign. At the very least, the daily trial coverage could create the same sort of distraction and credibility and cover-up issues for Kathleen Wynne that the Mike Duffy trial caused for Stephen Harper in last year’s federal election.