Dion has no reason to celebrate by-election results

Liberals won the two easy ones, but lost in Saskatchewan and almost lost in B.C.

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The Gazette, Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Three out of four ain't bad, right? Stephane Dion thought so, and certainly said so, after the Liberals retained three seats out of four they previously held in Monday's by-elections.

That's his story and, understandably, he's sticking to it. Actually, it was a not a very good day at the office for Dion.

There was no news in the Liberals retaining two Toronto ridings, Toronto Centre and Willowdale, by slam-dunk margins. Two marquee candidates, Bob Rae and Martha Hall Findlay, won two of the safest Liberal seats in creation. This is akin to Dion and Irwin Cotler winning St. Laurent and Mount Royal by blowout margins. Tell me something I don't know.

But the two other ridings, in northern Saskatchewan and leafy Vancouver, told a different story.

The Liberals played down expectations in the Saskatchewan riding of Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchill River, which they won by only half a point in 2006.

If they were going to lose one of the four, they acknowledged, this would be it. There were nasty feelings in the local riding association when Dion imposed a candidate, former provincial NDP minister Joan Beatty, and blocked a bid by anti-free-trade crusader David Orchard, a staunch backer of Dion's 2006 leadership bid.

In the end, the Liberals didn't just lose it by a field goal, they lost it by two touchdowns and a safety, 47.8 per cent to 31.4 per cent.

In by-elections, turnout doesn't matter. The only thing that counts is the spread, in percentage terms, compared with the previous general election.

But leave that one aside, conceding the Liberals were prepared to lose it.

The real story of the evening played out in Vancouver Quadra, an historic Liberal seat once held by John Turner and won by Stephen Owen by 21 points in 2006. Quadra, with tony Shaughnessy in the riding, is to Vancouver as Westmount is to Montreal, an impregnable Liberal fortress.

Once again, Dion had a handpicked candidate in Joyce Murray. She should have won by double digits. On Monday evening, it looked like she would win by only five points. When all the votes were counted by Elections Canada, she defeated Conservative Deborah Meredith by 36.1 to 35.6 per cent, by only half a point.

The Liberals retained the seat by all of 151 votes, narrowly averting a disaster for Dion.

Actually, it isn't all that surprising. In most polls, the Conservatives lead the Liberals by double digits in British Columbia. The Conservatives can't be that far ahead across the province and nowhere in the heart of Vancouver. As it turns out, they weren't.

It was a sure sign that something was up last week when Stephen Harper spent two days in Vancouver on government business. He didn't campaign in Quadra, he didn't go near the place. He didn't have to. He's the prime minister, and he gets on television and in the newspapers just by showing up. He met with B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell, who was only too happy to be part of a photo-op on harmonious federal-provincial relations.

Normally, the PM would make this kind of West Coast swing during a parliamentary recess. Like, this week, not last week, when the House was sitting. The Conservatives knew they were within striking distance in Quadra, and they put their biggest player out there without exposing him to the downside risk of participating in the campaign.

The Liberals knew something was going on, too. They sent Dion and the deputy leader, Michael Ignatieff, into Quadra last Friday.

And if you can imagine the Liberals winning Westmount by only half a point, that's the kind of game that played out in Quadra on Monday night.

The results in Saskatchewan and Vancouver should give the Liberals pause before they start sabre-rattling about an election after the Easter recess.

They also happen to be down 11 points, 38 to 27 per cent, in a new Strategic Counsel poll for CTV and the Globe and Mail, and the attitudinal data clearly suggest their attacks on the Conservatives' integrity in the Cadman affair and the NAFTA leak are getting very little traction with voters.

The Liberals have a leadership problem, or rather a problem with their leader. He stated as much himself at the press- gallery dinner last fall, when he said, to howls of laughter and applause, that in English Canada voters couldn't understand him while in French Canada they just couldn't stand him.

It sounded funny at the time.

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