ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - Conservatives urged Labrador voters to overlook spending rule violations and return incumbent Peter Penashue to Ottawa as a cabinet minister — an offer they answered with a resounding No.
Liberal candidate Yvonne Jones won the federal byelection Monday in Labrador, recapturing a traditional Grit bastion and handing the Harper government its sole byelection defeat in a Tory-held seat.
The riding became vacant when Penashue quit due to campaign overspending and ineligible contributions during the 2011 election. He finished a distant second.
Jones, a former provincial Liberal party leader and 17-year veteran of the legislature, vowed that she would be a strong voice for Labrador who wouldn't dodge tough questions.
"The people of Labrador wanted change," she told a roaring crowd of supporters at her victory party in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
"They want representation that's going to put Labrador first and I can guarantee you, they've got it tonight."
Jones said she spoke with Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau who, right after congratulating her, wanted to congratulate the voters of Labrador.
"We have demonstrated that the Liberal message of hope and hard work is resonating," Trudeau said in a statement.
During a campaign visit in the riding, Trudeau called for them to be the first to reject what he lambasted as the Conservative brand of attack-and-divide politics.
With all of the polls in, Jones won 48.2 per cent of the popular vote while Penashue took 32.5 per cent of the ballots cast. Harry Borlase, a northern issues analyst and researcher who ran for the NDP, finished third.
But political spinning of the results started long before the last polls were reported.
NDP national director Nathan Rotman dismissed suggestions the results reflect a Liberal resurgence.
"I think this is a unique riding," he said in an interview. "Labrador is a very local place and Yvonne Jones is a very local MHA with many years of name recognition and experience."
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair personally campaigned in Labrador twice but, in the end, his party's vote share remained virtually unchanged from the 2011 election, when the party vaulted past the Liberals into official Opposition status for the first time. Still, Rotman was encouraged that NDP support did not shrink.
"Voters in Labrador who voted for Jack Layton in the last election, voted for Tom again this time and ... certainly we'll continue to look to build upon that."
Rotman said the result should be a lesson for the Conservatives, however.
"This was a clear ethical lapse in this particular case and they've been dealt with a loss because of it," he said. "The Conservatives might see more of that if they don't look at the way they treat our democracy and our country, and voters and voters' will."
Conservative party spokesman Fred DeLorey said the result was not a surprise, given that Liberals have won the riding in all but two elections since the province joined Confederation in 1949.
"As we know, majority governments do not usually win byelections," he said in an email.
In fact, out of 21 byelections since Prime Minister Stephen Harper took office in 2006, the Conservatives have never before lost a Tory-held riding. They've even picked up five opposition-held seats.
Still, DeLorey tried to spin the Labrador result as a loss for Trudeau.
"When this byelection was called, the Liberals had a 43-point lead in the polls. Since electing Justin Trudeau as leader and having him personally campaign there, they have dropped 20 points in Labrador," DeLorey argued.
"Labradorians were able to see first-hand how Justin Trudeau is in over his head."
During the campaign, Jones accused the Conservatives of "fear mongering" by implying that Labradorians would benefit if they re-elected Penashue.
She reminded voters that even with Penashue in cabinet, the province saw cuts to search and rescue services, employment insurance crackdowns and no sign of long promised new funding for the 5 Wing Goose Bay military base.
Penashue couldn't be reached for comment.
He stepped down as intergovernmental affairs minister in March, saying he wanted to acknowledge campaign overspending in 2011 and regain the trust of voters.
The former Innu Nation leader spent months under fire from opposition critics as other cabinet ministers defended him in Parliament before he resigned.
Elections Canada records show Penashue exceeded his campaign spending limit of $84,468.09 by $5,529.76 while also accepting tens of thousands of dollars in off-limits donations. They included cash from 16 listed corporations and non-monetary contributions from two airlines that flew him around the riding.
Elections Canada now says Penashue's 2011 campaign return is final after repayments of almost $48,000, but it's not known if files were referred to the Commissioner of Elections. The commissioner can issue compliance orders or seek criminal charges through the Office of the Public Prosecutor.
Elections Canada does not comment on individual files, and any charges stemming from investigations are only made public when the commissioner issues a news release.
The final expense limit for candidates in the byelection Monday was $89,852.84.
Penashue said in a recent interview that he ran this time with a separate campaign manager and an official agent to ensure everything was "on the up and up."
Turnout in Monday's byelection was close to 60 per cent — up from almost 53 per cent in the 2011 election.
- With files from Joan Bryden in Ottawa.
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