If there were any doubts that the upcoming federal election really has become Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives to lose, the results of Monday’s byelection in the B.C. riding of Nanaimo-Ladysmith should have dispelled them.
No, the last byelection to be held before next fall’s federal campaign did not feature a great surge to the right. The Conservative share of the vote barely went up a couple of points from 2015. And yes, the Green Party was the night’s big winner.
But from Scheer’s perspective, a win for Elizabeth May’s party may be as promising a harbinger of greater things to come for his own party next fall as a Conservative byelection victory could have been.
By all indications, the very pattern of a divided progressive vote — which drove Justin Trudeau to espouse electoral reform when the Liberals were in third place in the House of Commons — is reasserting itself with a vengeance.
The Liberals will find out this fall whether they were terribly short-sighted when they unceremoniously dumped the promise to move to a more proportional voting system.
The non-conservative vote is fragmenting even as the chronic weakness of the NDP under Jagmeet Singh’s leadership remains constant. Hopes that his belated entrance into the Commons earlier this year would reverse the tide may have amounted to little more than wishful thinking.
The loss of a seat this close to the election will take a toll on party morale.
With just a few seats fewer than Quebec, B.C. accounts for Singh’s second-largest provincial caucus. If the New Democrats cannot hold their ground in either province, they could be in for their worst election night in three decades this October.
But at the same time, the Liberals’ assumption that a weaker NDP would virtually ensure their re-election to government is not standing up in the face of what comes across as an anybody-but-Trudeau trend in the electorate.
On Monday, the Liberals lost a dozen points from their 2015 score to finish with only 11 per cent of the vote. The NDP lost 10 points. Many of the voters who had supported Trudeau or Thomas Mulcair in the last election stayed home or switched to the Green Party.
Not only is May poised to win over some of the lapsed NDP supporters the Liberals had been counting on to make up for predictable losses to the Conservatives in places like Alberta and Atlantic Canada, but her party is also attracting disillusioned Trudeau fans.
By all indications, disaffection with the prime minister and his NDP rival — rather than a sudden attraction for the Greens — accounts for the Green victory in Nanaimo-Ladysmith.
The opposite happened when the same voters participated in a provincial byelection earlier this year. On that occasion, Andrew Weaver’s provincial Green Party lost ground to Premier John Horgan’s NDP.
Concerns over climate change are increasingly finding their way in the ballot box at both the federal and provincial level.
The addition of a second Green seat in the Commons comes on the heels of breakthroughs in a number of provinces. Last month, the Greens beat the Liberals for second place in P.E.I., where they now make up the official opposition.
That being said, the federal riding of Nanaimo-Ladysmith sits in May’s political backyard.
On Canada’s electoral map, it would be hard to find a better place for the Green Party to successfully test whether its provincial momentum has federal legs.
But Monday’s success could be hard to replicate in less auspicious territory. There are no more than a handful of ridings that offer a profile as auspicious for May’s party as the Vancouver Island riding.
Over the last provincial election cycle, parties that are closely identified with the environmental issue have tended to surpass expectations, That was true in Quebec but also in New-Brunswick last fall.
But with the notable exception of the 2017 B.C. vote, every other provincial election has also resulted in the victory of a party no more and often less committed to the environment than its predecessor in government.
The polarization of the debate over climate change has so far benefited the Conservatives at the expense of parties with more activist environmental agendas.
And that is a more probable consequence of an enduring rise in support for May’s party next fall than the election of a strong contingent of Green MPs.
If the upcoming federal campaign turns into a plebiscite on climate change policy, advocates of carbon-pricing could well win the debate but lose the election to the Conservatives.
Chantal Hébert is a columnist based in Ottawa covering politics. Follow her on Twitter: @ChantalHbert