Liberals condemned to relive byelection humiliation
Many Liberal partisans deeply detested Tommy Douglas.
At the height of his powers as a national political leader, the NDP’s Douglas achieved an almost Ghandian status. First, as the father of medicare, and later as the courageous, lonely defender of civil rights when Pierre Trudeau’s imposed the Canadian military on Quebec. They profoundly resented this irritating Baptist preacher’s searing indictment of their “flexible” political values.
Especially galling was his crowd pleasing fable, “Mouseland.” He would bring the house down, night after night with his depiction of the Liberals. Canada was a nation where black cats and white cats took turn oppressing their mouse citizens, he explained. Until one day a young mouse asked, “Why do we keep voting for cats? Shouldn’t we vote for someone to fight for us?” Liberals seethed at Tommy’s hilarious populist mythology.
They worked hard to defeat him with great success. As leader of a cash-starved third party, Douglas was usually on the road for weeks at a time, not tending his flock at home. Liberals would find strong candidates and lavish them with bags of cash. They defeated him three times in his own riding: first in Saskatchewan and later in B.C.
Now voters do not like to be forced to vote unnecessarily, but they really hate being teased about whether and when they will be allowed to cast their judgment. Playing games with election timing usually bites the strategists who play the “will he, won’t he” game. But it is a lesson lost on each generation’s ahistoric political fixers.
Following their third defeat of Tommy Douglas in 1968, he moved to the suddenly vacant riding of Nanaimo Cowichan and the Islands to fight a byelection. (The MP, my grandfather Colin Cameron, had died suddenly of a stroke weeks after his greatest election victory.)
The Liberals reverted to the old playbook: setting an election months longer than normal — the longest byelection campaign in modern Canadian political history — then recruited the son of an NDP MP as their candidate and proceeded through the fall and winter to flood the riding with ministers showering grants and organizers carrying cash. The NDP and the Liberals spent the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of today’s dollars in this epic battle.
Voters delivered a resounding verdict in giving Douglas a stunning 20 per cent victory margin.
The great Liberal rainmaker, Keith Davey, tried it again a decade later, bundling 15 long-delayed byelections into one big gamble in 1978. He got Bob Rae, an instant star as NDP finance critic; Fonse Faour, the first NDP MP from Newfoundland; and 10 new Tories, including future stars David Crombie and Bob DeCotret, for his efforts. Davey was then in the middle of his staggering 688 day election tease, that ran from the spring of 1977 to defeat in May of 1979.
Don’t tease voters about their right to cast judgment on you was one clear message. But here we are again.
Many local Liberals want to crush a shaky Jagmeet Singh, pushing the federal NDP leader into a death spiral by denying him an election to relaunch his leadership. Savvier Ottawa heads reluctantly agreed to their insistence on avoiding a timely election call. They should not have.
First, they have given Singh a new cudgel to beat them with: “They’re afraid of you!” he will tell his Burnaby voters, “They won’t allow you to vote!”
More importantly, as a strategic blunder, the Liberals will now need to set a date much closer to next year’s general election.
When they lose the byelection in one of Canada’s safest NDP communities sometime next year, they will have given Singh a “prodigal arisen” status only weeks before going into a new parliament and then campaign. A likely successful Parliamentary spring for Singh will cement his leadership, just before the summer pre-election battles.
History does reward study.