At face value, last night’s two by-election results are a bit of a yawner. Both the governing Ontario Liberals and opposition Progressive Conservatives (PC’s) held onto their seats in Ottawa-Vanier and Niagara West-Glanbrook respectively.
Despite angst amongst some Liberals, and a bit of wishful thinking among some PC’s, Premier Wynne’s team held onto a seat that has been Liberal red since the early 1970’s, resisting the NDP wave of 1990 and the PC’s “Common Sense Revolution” of 1995. The win will be a bit of a shot in the arm for the Premier as she heads into the Ontario Liberal Party’s Annual General Meeting this weekend in Ottawa.
The news in Niagara West-Glanbrook wasn’t so rosy for the Ontario Liberals. The party fell to third place, well behind the second place NDP and lost a full 13 percentage points in support from the previous election. The Ontario PC’s finished well in front with 54 per cent of the votes cast. That’s an impressive figure and a full 12 per cent more than they garnered in 2014. It appears that most of their increased vote count came at the expense of the Liberals.
All of that being said, the Liberals were widely expected to lose this race to the upstart PC candidate Sam Oosterhoff. Oosterhoff is a 19-year-old political science student who opposes abortion rights and appears to believe that homosexuality is a sin. He shocked political observers by harnessing the support of a group of social conservatives within the party who feel betrayed by Patrick Brown’s apparent flip-flops on same-sex marriage and sex education. With their support he soundly defeated party President, former MP, and close personal friend of Patrick Brown, Rick Dykstra, to win the nomination and earn the right to represent the PC’s in last night’s race.
Oosterhoff’s election could not come at a worse time for his leader. Brown has been trying hard since becoming leader to remake his image into that of a moderate, socially progressive conservative. It hasn’t been easy. Despite marching in Toronto’s gay pride parade, he was dogged by controversy when his campaign manager apparently approved a letter sent under Brown’s signature assuring social conservatives in Scarborough that he would repeal Ontario’s sex education reforms. Brown was later forced to denounce the letter. The Liberals have also repeatedly brought up Brown’s consistent social conservative voting record during his time as a federal Conservative MP. Premier Wynne’s team can now be expected to zero in on Oosterhoff’s alleged ties with Charles McVety and his openly anti-gay marriage and anti-abortion “Campaign LifeCoalition”, who accuse Brown of betraying social conservative principles in favour of political expediency.
So there you have it. There’s no doubt that things could be better for the Ontario Liberals. They are statistically tied with the NDP in some opinion surveys and the Premier’s approval ratings are mired in mid-mandate lows. But, she has a cabinet and caucus that appear to be solidly behind her leadership. Brown, on the other hand, now has to deal with a 19-year-old social conservative who doesn’t owe him anything and is apparently heavily influenced by elements of the party that are openly calling for his resignation. Patrick Brown must have enjoyed the Niagara result last night, but he should be sleeping with one eye open going forward.
The voters may have just sent a Trojan horse into the PC party caucus. And we all know what happened to Troy.