The June 1st by-election in Sault Ste. Marie reminds me of the saying, ‘If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?’
By-elections tend to be momentary blips on the political radar screen, usually observed by bored journalists and politicos who try to find meaning in a usually meaningless exercise.
In this case, the by-election taking place in northern Ontario will have little or no impact on the Wynne government, who have all but conceded that winning will be difficult at best. The same cannot be said for the opposition parties.
Both parties attracted sitting city councillors to be their candidates several months ago. They have had months to prepare their campaign, knock on doors, hold telephone town halls, and raise money and profile in preparation for the by-election.
So the real test will be which of these parties will prevail on by-election day. A lot will be riding for both parties.
The NDP held the riding from 1985 to 2003 when David Orazietti won in the McGuinty sweep. Prior to that the Conservatives held the riding from 1951 to 1985. So both parties can lay claim to long history of representing the people in Sault Ste. Marie. In each election that Orazietti represented the riding he garnered more than fifty percent of the vote with the NDP coming second and the Conservatives a distant third.
This time out Patrick Brown’s team feels that they have a good candidate, plenty of money in the bank and government fatigue after nearly fifteen years of Liberal rule. The Tory campaign is focusing on high hydro rates that hit northern communities hard this past year as well as health care and past Liberal misdeeds.
With a four-month head start and several visits by Brown to the riding, the Tories feel the spring by-election will help them sustain the momentum that began with wins in Whitby-Oshawa, Scarborough-Rouge River and Niagara West-Glanbrook. If Brown is able to make a breakthrough in northern Ontario then it will send a signal that he can be competitive in all parts of the province.
For the NDP this election is an important opportunity to block Brown and demonstrate that they are the alternative to the Liberals. To that end, NDP leader Andrea Horwath returned the party back to its traditional progressive roots. At their recent convention she introduced a provincial pharmacare program and prior to that a plan to roll back hydro rates and return Hydro One to public ownership. She has also championed the $15 an hour minimum wage and job creation programs.
Horwath and the NDP believe that Sault Ste. Marie is the right place to start their push towards forming the next government. The riding’s demographics and economy lend itself well to the NDP message. A win here will give the party a significant morale boost in an area where they won six of the eleven seats in the 2014 election.
For the Liberals a win here would be a godsend in a riding where they had difficulty finding a candidate until the last minute. While having a strong base to begin the campaign, the Liberals started late and have a lot of ground to make up in the next few weeks. However, a positive budget and money being announced that will benefit the riding will give the campaign a boost. Voters will see a parade of Ministers visiting and stumping for the local Liberal candidate.
Although a win would be fabulous, second place should be seen as a victory, of sorts. If the Liberals manage to stay out last place and force either the Tories or the NDP into last it will soften the loss. The risk of a third place for either opposition party however can have serious consequences for both the leader and the party. With a four-month lead in preparing for the campaign and allocating significant human and financial resources to their respective campaigns, party members and the media will be raising serious questions of the third place finisher.
So, while a tree falls in Sault Ste. Marie, most people across the province won’t hear a thing but journalists and politicos will be examining it to see if it opened a path or caused any damage to the three major parties.
Marcel Wieder is President and Chief Advocate of Aurora Strategy Group. He is an award winning political consultant who has worked on campaigns for over forty years.