Kitchener-Waterloo byelection sees new liberals outpace old ones
TheStar.com – news/canada/politics
September 07, 2012. By Thomas Walkom, National Affairs Columnist
For the New Democrats, Thursday’s win in Ontario’s Kitchener-Waterloobyelection is more than a good news blip. It’s a significant victory with long-term implications.
Conventional wisdom holds that byelection results should be taken with more than a grain of salt. And in most cases, conventional wisdom is right.
Byelections allow voters to vent their anger at whatever government happens to be in power without actually removing it from office.
In that sense, Thursday’s contest gave the people of Kitchener-Waterloo a chance to send Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty — who had engineered the race by appointing Tory incumbent Elizabeth Witmer to a plum patronage post — a stern message of disapproval.
Very stern. The Liberal candidate came in third.
But usually when voters deliver this kind of message, they gravitate to the party they view as the most logical alternative to the current government — the default party.
In Kitchener-Waterloo, the default party should have been the Progressive Conservatives. Voters there have been electing Tories since 1990. The Liberals always placed a respectable second, leaving the New Democrats a distant third.
Indeed, Thursday’s NDP winner, Catherine Fife, only managed to attract 17 per cent of the vote the last time she ran, in 2007.
This time, however, almost 40 per cent of voters chose her and the NDP.
Two things occurred, I think. First, voters decided that while they might be somewhat conservative, they weren’t as far to the right as Tim Hudak’s PC Party. They decided to vote liberal.
Second, and most important, they decided that the NDP was a better liberal alternative than the real Liberal Party.
Tellingly, as my Star colleagues have reported, NDP winner Fife had at one point considered running for the Liberals.
All of this is taking place in the context of realignment on the centre-left. Federally, New Democrats under Tom Mulcair (a former Liberal) have become the official Opposition. In Quebec, voters have embraced the NDP wholeheartedly for the first time in the party’s history. Business-friendly NDP governments are in power in Manitoba and Nova Scotia.
Conversely, the Liberals now govern in just three provinces — Ontario, British Columbia and Prince Edward Island. And if the polls are correct, BC’s Liberal government is likely to be defeated by the NDP in an election that is expected soon.
All of this is taking place as New Democrats move deliberately rightward to what they, and most media, call the centre.
It’s a process that accelerated federally under Jack Layton and is being continued by Mulcair. In Ontario, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath takes a similar approach, staking out positions that can appeal to so-called progressives without alienating more conservative constituencies.
Even Horwath’s critique of McGuinty’s plan to roll back union rights for teachers is carefully nuanced. Her key argument is not that the move is intrinsically unfair but that it’s impractical since the courts are likely to overturn the Liberals’ proposed law.
Horwath’s studied vagueness on so many issues may irritate journalists seeking clarity. I confess that at times I’m one.
But for a party determined to become the new Liberals, it’s a winning strategy. Liberals are nothing if not studiously vague. And the voters have always rewarded them for it.
So what happened in Kitchener-Waterloo? The answer is that old Liberals were outpaced by new liberals who call themselves the NDP.
These new liberals are on the move. If their momentum continues, they’ll have a real chance when the combined opposition finally drives a stake through the heart of McGuinty’s tired minority government.
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