02/05/2016 05:50 EST | Updated 02/05/2017 05:12 EST

The Whitby-Oshawa Byelection Can Send The Liberals A Message

Bernard Weil via Getty Images
TORONTO, ON - APRIL 10: Ontario Kathleen Wynne sits in her office with Star Queen's Park reporter Martin Regg Cohn. (Bernard Weil/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

On Thursday, voters will go to the polls in the riding of Whitby-Oshawa for a provincial byelection. On the surface, the results of the by election will change absolutely nothing.

The Ontario Liberal government does not currently hold that seat, and is not expected to win this riding. If that is the case, the seat totals in the Provincial Legislature will not change. The Liberal majority will continue.

But can someone interpret the results of a byelection? Is it even possible to do so?

The sad reality is that Canadians generally don't tend to vote much in byelections. Certainly if one looks at some of the most recent by elections, we see the voter participation rate is as low as 15 per cent, to maybe reaching a high of 43 per cent. This is likely because, as mentioned above, most byelections don't change anything.

Additionally, it's widely expected that the Conservatives are going to win. They've held onto the riding since it was formed in 2006. They currently have an eight per cent lead in the polls.

Additionally, Canadians have a history of voting against governments and power, sometimes for no other reason than that particular government is power. So, a mere Conservative victory won't necessarily mean much (except for the candidates, of course).

What then should the politicians look at when interpreting the results? Are there any trends that suggest anything relevant to policy makers? Yes there are.

The first thing to look at would be voter turnout. Historically speaking, a high level of voter turnout in a byelection is associated with a public that is really angry with the current government. Most recently, the federal counterpart riding Whitby-Oshawa had a byelection (due to the death of MPP Jim Flaherty) and turnout then was 31.8 per cent.

A turnout greater than 40 per cent would seem to indicate a public fed up with the current government.

The second thing to look at would be by how much the Conservative candidate wins the election by. Yes, I am making the assumption that the Conservatives will hold onto their seat.

In the 2010 election the Conservatives had a 15 per cent plurality over the Liberal candidate. In 2014, that dropped to about nine per cent. A return to a 15 per cent plurality, or even close to that, would certainly be an indication that Ms. Wynne's government is getting progressively more unpopular.

While it's true that the actual result won't change who is in power, it is now up to the residents of Whitby-Oshawa to decide just how much of a message to send the Liberals. Goodness knows there's been no shortage of scandals with the current government, with everything from CCAC executive salaries, long waiting lists for joint replacements and, of course, gas plant scandals that won't go away.

The flip side is that PC Leader Patrick Brown is still finding his footing, and may or may not have made an impression on the public.

He's been to the riding on to support PC candidate Lorne Coe. This will be the first test of his leadership, to see what kind of impact he has. Has he made a good impression so far on the voters? Can he convince them to go out and vote, in an election that will not change the balance of power?

A Conservative win will no doubt be portrayed by leader Patrick Brown as being a repudiation of the current government and as a sign the Liberals are failing the public.

A Liberal win, however, will convince Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne that she's on the right track, emboldening her. She will no doubt double down on the same policies that she has carried on in the first part of her mandate. Frankly, even a Conservative win of less than eight per cent plurality will be spun to show that she is on the right track.

None of this matters in the long run, of course. The next full election is almost three years away. A lot can happen in the mean time.

However, if Whitby-Oshawa wants to send a message to the Liberals that they are tired of the scandals and at least make the party re-think their stand on various issues, they need to provide a large plurality for the Conservative candidate.

Will that happen? We find out Thursday, February 11.

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