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Federal Politics

The Liberal Loss in Toronto Is Seismic

Why this Conservative byelection victory is crushing for Trudeau and team.

Michael Harris 25 Jun 2024The Tyee

Michael Harris, a Tyee contributing editor, is a highly awarded journalist and documentary maker. Author of Party of One, the bestselling exposé of the Harper government, his investigations have sparked four commissions of inquiry.

The Conservative Party of Canada shocked the Trudeau government by winning the byelection in the riding of Toronto-St. Paul’s, a Liberal stronghold for the last 30 years.

Back in 2021, former MP and cabinet minister Carolyn Bennett, now Canada’s ambassador to Denmark, won the riding by a whopping 24 points.

Bennett won a total of nine elections in the Toronto riding before resigning. This time around, Don Stewart defeated Liberal candidate Leslie Church by 590 votes. Church was the former chief-of-staff for Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland.

The victory by rookie candidate Stewart is in line with dismal national poll numbers for Justin Trudeau, in which the PM trails Pierre Poilievre by 21 points. The upset victory makes Stewart a giant killer, and gives the Conservatives their first seat in Canada’s most populous city.

Going into the contest, neither candidate had big name recognition in the riding, and Church was not the Liberal party’s first choice to contest the seat.

As surprising as Stewart’s upset victory is, there was cause for the Conservatives to be optimistic about their chances in a riding where victory for the Liberals has usually been a slam dunk.

An estimated 15 per cent of the electorate in Toronto-St. Paul’s is Jewish. The Conservative campaign included a letter to Jewish households claiming the Liberal government had done little about rising antisemitism in Canada.

The Conservatives also believed there was widespread unhappiness with Trudeau’s stance on the war in Gaza. After all, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu famously said that anyone who advocated for a ceasefire wanted Hamas to win. And Justin Trudeau, belatedly or not, did ask for a ceasefire.

The Tories had another thing working in their favour. Toronto-St. Paul’s also has a very wealthy demographic that could be unhappy about the Liberal government’s plan to raise the capital gains tax.

According to recent polling, one in five Canadians believe that raising the inclusion rate of the tax will cost them more over the next five years. Finance Minister Freeland has consistently claimed that the tax change will affect less than one per cent of Canadians.

Another unhappy voting block the Conservatives have relentlessly courted is renters. The party’s national message has been that under Trudeau rents have doubled. Between 60 and 66 per cent of Toronto-St. Paul’s residents are renters.

The Liberals tried to counter these potential negatives with a combination of shoe leather politics and deft, and perhaps cynical, legislative moves at the 11th hour.

Realizing what was at stake, the Liberals blitzed the riding with a team of top cabinet ministers, who warned against delivering the riding to the Conservatives. The PM said that all the Conservatives stood for was making people angrier than they already were, without having any solutions.

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland landed the most direct blow of the campaign, perhaps below the belt, describing the Conservatives as “really cold, cruel and small.”

At the last minute, the Liberals also adopted a measure to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, as a terrorist group. That is the Iranian group that arms and trains Hamas and Hezbollah. Israel had been asking for such a designation without success — until now.

Almost 37,000 votes were cast in the byelection, including 10,000 plus from people who cast early ballots in Toronto-St. Paul’s.

Voter turnout was just 43.52 per cent, compared to 65.48 per cent in the 2021 general election. The byelection was decided early this morning. After trailing Church most of the evening, Stewart pulled ahead at 4:30 a.m. when the last three batches of ballots were counted.

The entire process was delayed by the sheer number of candidates on the ballot — 84 in all. The ballots were so big that boxes that would normally hold 1,000 votes could only manage 100. The huge number of candidates was part of a protest against the first-past-the-post electoral system that Justin Trudeau promised to change, but did not.

This Toronto riding became larger than life in a political sense because of the table stakes. In the run-up to the vote, a lot of politicos and pundits wondered if Toronto-St. Paul’s would be a normal a byelection, a chance for disgruntled voters to chastise the government without replacing it. Or would it become a bye-bye election for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau?

Trudeau himself said the vote in the Toronto riding was a precursor to the clear choice Canadians will have to make in a general election expected in 2025. If he is right about that, there are dark days ahead for the Liberals, with no safe seats anywhere in the country.

How big is it for the Conservatives to have flipped Toronto-St.Paul’s? It is seismic.

After 11 years at the helm of the party, Trudeau’s viability as leader was already at issue before today’s upset. Now that he has lost one of the safest of the party’s safe seats, alarm bells will be going off in the Liberal caucus. At best, the loss will be a morale killer for the Grits facing a national election. At worst, it might trigger the deadliest words in politics: open internal revolt.

That’s because the Conservatives successfully made Justin Trudeau the ballot issue. By losing a seat like Toronto-St. Paul’s, how can the Liberals realistically expect to win another general election? Even in the debacle of the 2011 election, in which Michael Ignatieff reduced the Liberals to just 34 seats, the party still won Toronto-St. Paul’s by 11 points.

Interestingly, the most recent survey from the Angus Reid Institute found that dumping the leader wouldn’t much help Liberal electoral fortunes.

In fact, the data suggests that Canadians are more likely to say that rumoured Trudeau successors, from Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland to former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney, “would drive them away from the party.”

Pollster Nik Nanos told CTV that a loss in Toronto-St. Pauls’s would be “completely devastating for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party of Canada.”

Liberal commentator Scott Reid agreed, saying “this changes everything for the Liberals and the PM.”

Is Canada’s prince about to become a political pauper?  [Tyee]

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