The morning after three federal byelections was like an elementary school sports day, with all the party leaders wearing their participation medals — “If you had fun, you won” — and claiming victory.In the B.C. riding of Burnaby South, the NDP’s Jagmeet Singh celebrated a win that paves his way, after 16 months as leader, to a seat in the House of Commons.To be fair to him, he won the prize through hope and hard work, and no one can ever take his newly won legitimacy away from him (at least not until October).But the festivities did rather mask a crushing defeat in Outremont where the NDP lost the Quebec seat held by Tom Mulcair in three successive general elections. It also ignored a poor performance in the York-Simcoe byelection in the commuter belt north of Toronto, where the party recorded just 7.5 per cent of the vote.The Liberals claimed the win in Outremont, taking an opposition seat for the third time in this Parliament — a feat not matched since 1908. It seems that Quebecers do appreciate the Herculean efforts being made by this Prime Minister to place their interests ahead of the rest of the country, on issues ranging from pipelines to the current SNC-Lavalin saga.If the 18 point drop in support for the NDP in Outremont is repeated across the province in October, the Liberals could add another 10 to 15 seats to their tally. Yet there was a notable enthusiasm gap between 2015 and now that bodes ill for the party. In York-Simcoe, the Liberal vote share slipped significantly (to 29 per cent from 38 per cent) even though the candidate, Shaun Tanaka, was the same.The Conservatives earned themselves a victory lap in York-Simcoe with Scot Davidson’s win. They will be delighted that Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party earned just 2 per cent of the vote in that riding and in Outremont.If the 18 point drop in support for the NDP in Outremont is repeated across the province in October, the Liberals could add another 10 to 15 seats to their tally
But they will be disconcerted by the 11 per cent of the vote won by the PPC’s Laura-Lynn Thompson, a former Christian talk show host, in Burnaby. The average People’s Party vote across the three by-elections was 5.6 per cent — potentially the difference between victory and defeat for Andrew Scheer, if replicated in a general election.Bernier professed himself “disappointed” with the results in Ontario and Quebec but said overall there were signs of progress for his five-month-old party. “This is the beginning of our journey. We are in it for the long haul,” he said.That would be a fair prediction were it not for the fundamental contradiction at the core of Bernier’s populist party: it is led by a libertarian free-marketer and supported by anti-globalists. One day soon, his followers may realize they don’t share the same agenda as their leader.
NDP candidate Julia Sanchez is hugged by a supporter in Montreal, Monday, February 25, 2019, following the federal byelection results for the riding of Outremont.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
Even the Greens could afford to be triumphant. Their candidate in Outremont, Daniel Green (bien sur), picked up 12.5 per cent of the vote, indicating an openness to trying something new among voters tired of a Liberal Party that has broken too many promises, a Conservative Party that is apathetic about climate change and an NDP that has appeared to be in disarray.While all parties (except the Bloc) had something to cheer about, the real loser was Canadian democracy.The York-Simcoe byelection is the first I can find on the Elections Canada website where voter turnout dipped below 20 per cent. Fewer than one in five eligible voters bothered to go to the polls, which is a pretty miserable state of affairs.Outremont was only marginally better, at 21.4 per cent. Rachel Bendayan is now a member of the Canadian parliament having won just 6,086 votes. Every single councillor but one on Toronto city council received more votes in the 2018 municipal election.The York-Simcoe byelection is the first I can find on the Elections Canada website where voter turnout dipped below 20 per cent
This reflects a level of disillusionment apparent among voters since the sunny ways of 2015, when turnout in the general election reached 68.5 per cent, 10 points up on the record low of 2008.There is a debate among academics about the declining support for democracy among millennials.One disconcerting graph that appeared in the Journal of Democracy in 2016 suggested that young people in Western countries like the U.S. and Great Britain are losing faith in democracy, with only one in four Americans born in the 1980s believing that “it is essential to live in a democracy.” That survey has been criticized for its methodology but even the critics agree that, on average, younger people assign lower value to democracy than the generation who lived, or whose parents lived, through the Second World War.Canada wasn’t included in that study — and the 57 per cent turnout of 18-24 year olds in the 2015 election (up from 39 per cent in 2011) suggested it might be a beacon of hope.But there has been decline in voter turnout since then, even judging by the historically low rate seen in byelections. One suspects the Liberals’ failure to deliver on specific promises like electoral reform and the more general pledge to “do politics differently” have not enamoured them to younger voters. Neither has the Conservative Party’s apparent disinterest in climate change inspired millennials to head to the polls. Elections are determined by the people who show up. Studies done after the 2015 election suggest the Conservatives had — and likely still have — an advantage among voters older than 60.Those people voted in large numbers in 2015 (78.8 per cent of 65-74 years olds voted) and electoral history suggests they will do so again this year.That prospect may cheer Conservatives. But nobody should be upbeat about the fact that enthusiasm for government of the people, by the people, for the people is waning, and putting our democracy in peril.***A clarification: in Monday’s column, I quoted former judge Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond as calling for an RCMP investigation into the SNC-Lavalin affair. She writes to say she supports such an investigation, if there is any evidence Jody Wilson-Raybould was fired as attorney general because she refused under pressure to change her position in favour of a deferred prosecution agreement.• Email: firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: IvisonJ