OTTAWA - Three federal byelections Monday night failed to alter the party standings in the House of Commons — returning two Conservatives and a New Democrat — but the results gave a clear boost to Green party fortunes.
Despite the low voter turnout that is typical of byelections, three Green candidates actually managed to increase their cumulative vote count in the byelections from the 2011 general election — the only party to do so Monday — while playing an influential role in both the Victoria and Calgary Centre outcomes.
The Conservatives lost vote share in all three ridings they contested and, despite their success, their vote totals were down dramatically.
Conservative candidate Joan Crockatt hung on to Calgary Centre but her share of the popular vote dropped 21 percentage points in the face of a surprise surge by the Liberals and the Greens. A Conservative handily won the central Ontario riding of Durham, but came a distant third in Victoria, where the NDP eked out a slim victory over the Greens.
While byelection results are notoriously fickle, the Green surge is enough to raise some interesting questions about vote splitting and inter-party co-operation as Canadians look ahead to the real contest in the general election of October 2015.
Just ask Green party Leader Elizabeth May.
"I hopes it says, look, the Greens have arrived," a jet-lagged May said Tuesday after returning from Victoria.
If so, it also says that new and interesting vote splits are on the horizon that could benefit the ruling Conservatives immensely. That's a point May is eager to make.
"I don't worry about how the byelections went, but I think it should be an object lesson to the Liberals and the New Democrats that it's time to start talking to each other," she said, after noting her party's official policy position is one of co-operation.
Liberal leadership candidate Joyce Murray also said the Calgary Centre outcome demonstrates the need for co-operation among Liberals, New Democrats and Greens.
"This was, I think, a good illustration of what happens when we split the progressive vote, election after election," said Murray, a Vancouver MP.
"Over 60 per cent of the votes were cast for progressive candidates who probably agree on more than half of the issues."
Murray is the only Liberal leadership contender so far to broach the idea of co-operation among so-called progressive parties. For the next election only, she is proposing run-off nominations to choose a single progressive candidate in ridings where a united opposition front could defeat the Conservatives.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair has adamantly ruled out any co-operation with the Liberals.
A source involved in last night's campaigns who requested anonymity said the Greens reached out to the NDP in an effort to make a deal for two of the three byelection ridings: the Greens would ease up in Victoria if New Democrats backed off in Calgary Centre.
They were rebuffed, said the source, causing the Green party to redouble its efforts in Victoria.
However, interim Liberal leader Bob Rae said there's no guarantee Green voters wouldn't have migrated to the Tories or NDP or just stayed home had they been given no Green option in the byelections.
"I have no doubt that there's an element of a protest vote that went to the Green party in Calgary and in Victoria," he said.
Donn Lovett, Liberal campaign manager in Calgary Centre, said Harvey Locke's near-win was primarily the result of appealing to disaffected red Tories. Hence, Lovett said, any alliance with left-wing parties aimed at ganging up on the Conservatives would likely have done more harm than good.
Keith Beardsley, a former senior Harper adviser who now pens a closely watched politics blog, wrote Tuesday there were warning signals for the Conservatives in the byelection results.
"It would also be interesting to know where the moderate Conservative or Red Tory vote went," wrote Beardsley.
"Did they stick with Crockatt who is seen as hard right, or did they move to the Liberals? That is a key question for the Conservatives."
May herself suggested some of those moderate conservatives are going Green, at least in Victoria.
"I think a lot of people who would have described themselves as Red Tories really feel homeless."
New Democrat insiders believe their party's collapse in Calgary Centre — where they won just 3.8 per cent of the vote — went to the Greens, while the riding's traditional Red Tories voted Liberal.
Despite winning Victoria, the byelections were not great news for the NDP, which saw its vote share plummet 13 points in Victoria and 11 points in Calgary in the face of a Green surge. Only in Durham did the NDP vote share go up, by a modest five points.
New Democrat MP Peter Julian dismissed suggestions the Green party is threatening NDP hopes of winning government in 2015. He argued that local issues influenced the outcome in the byelections, which won't be factors in the next general election.
Julian also rejected the idea that opposition parties may need to co-operate to defeat the Tories.
"Parties have different approaches. I think you need to have full democracy, candidates and parties, you put them out and then Canadians living in that riding make the best decision."
That may be music to Conservative ears.
"A surging Green Party, a resurgent Liberal Party and a scrappy NDP mean plenty of vote splitting in the days ahead," wrote Beardsley.
"Unless there is a dramatic change, this should give the Tories one more win."
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