‘Ottawa’ Reevely: Ontario Liberals’ Future in the Balance as Ottawa-Vanier Votes
The Ontario Liberals begin their annual general meeting at the Shaw Centre on Friday. In Ottawa-Vanier. Hours after the byelection to replace Madeleine Meilleur as the riding’s MPP.
If Liberal candidate Nathalie Des Rosiers wins, the convention centre people will need to crank the HVAC to handle all the sighs of relief.
Des Rosiers has run a by-the-book campaign in an attempt to retain the Liberal stronghold vacated earlier this year by Meilleur. The law dean and civil rights champion has hit the doors hard, defended the Liberals’ record, fought a bit dirty against Progressive Conservative nominee André Marin with leaflets repeating allegations he terrorized his own staff as the provincial ombudsman.
She’s secured public endorsements (and some campaign help) from Meilleur, the local councillors, Mauril Bélanger’s widow, Catherine, even ex-prime minister Jean Chrétien. That’s a notable difference between Des Rosiers and Marin: for all the renown he attracted as Ontario’s warrior-ombud, Marin’s biggest-name backer in the riding is Richard Cannings, the former city councillor who lost in the amalgamation election in 2000.
“People know me and there’s no need to be introduced or be endorsed,” Marin says. Cannings has been one of his best friends for years.
I took a long drive through most of the riding the other day, from Overbrook to Rockcliffe and back, and Des Rosiers had twice as many signs up on private property as Marin did. New Democrat Claude Bisson had only a handful. A rough sign count isn’t scientific, but it is suggestive.
The Progressive Conservatives set out to lower expectations a little on Wednesday, with a news release headlined: “Ottawa-Vanier is a Liberal fortress that is Kathleen Wynne’s to lose.” In other words, we’ll treat a strong second place as a moral victory.
But given last week’s Donald Trump surprise, Liberals fall into complacency at their own great peril. An end-of-campaign email from Ottawa-Orléans Liberal MPP Marie-France Lalonde reminded the team that low turnout in the U.S. election, probably abetted by good poll numbers for the Democrats, killed Hillary Clinton’s chance to be president.
“If you want a progressive, strong voice you need to show up and vote,” Lalonde told the Liberal faithful.
She threw in a tweet copied from senior Eastern Ontario Tory Roxane Villeneuve, with a picture of Villeneuve and regional organizer Debbie Jodoin holding Trump signs, declaring that “We Canadians love Trump.” That message is at odds with Marin’s emphasis on the first word in the Progressive Conservative name, and hard to square with much that leader Patrick Brown has said lately, either.
(Speaking of such things, the Tories have their own existential drama going on in the other byelection Thursday night, in Niagara, where teenaged social conservative Sam Oosterhoff is their candidate. In Ottawa, the question is whether Des Rosiers is strong enough to heave all of the Liberal baggage over the finish line; in Niagara, it’s whether the Progressive Conservative brand is enough to keep Oosterhoff ahead of more accomplished Liberal and New Democrat candidates.)
Losing a byelection in Scarborough-Rouge River to the Tories at the end of the summer was bad for the Liberals but — despite the opposition’s saying otherwise — that was never a very safe Liberal seat. Losing Ottawa-Vanier would be a catastrophe, an omen of an extinction-level event for the Liberal party, and personally devastating for Wynne.
As of her last visit to Ottawa a week ago, Wynne had every intention of leading the Liberal party into the 2018 election. “She’s not going anywhere,” her people say.
Things looked bad for the party when Wynne took over from Dalton McGuinty in 2013 but she turned a wobbly minority into a majority a year later. That experience understandably makes it easy to discount, for instance, a poll saying almost six in 10 Ontarians want her to quit. But that experience predated the ugly cash-for-access scandal over ministerial fundraising Wynne defended for much too long. And it predated the bribery charges against Wynne’s chief election organizer Patricia Sorbara over her handling of a surplus Sudbury byelection candidate two years ago. Wynne’s face isn’t so fresh any more.
Here in Ottawa, Des Rosiers was recruited as a candidate by party brass even though the Liberals had a solid candidate available in local school trustee Lucille Collard. Des Rosiers won the nomination partly, maybe entirely, because hundreds of people couldn’t vote due to a Collard campaign paperwork screw-up. That was a legitimate use of the party rules but it won’t stop the recriminations if Des Rosiers doesn’t pull through.
In that case, the ventilation at the convention centre will be fine, but the Rideau Canal outside will need more than its autumn trickle to carry away the blood.