Inside Politics

UPDATED - CPC Talking Point Watch: "Majority governments don't win by-elections ..."

It's not surprising that Conservative Party spokesperson Fred DeLorey would do his best to downplay expectations for the upcoming trio of by-elections in Victoria, Durham and Calgary Centre by telling reporter Susana Mas that "majority governments don't win by-elections." 

What is surprising, though, is that he would make such a claim without first checking the historical record, since it simply doesn't seem to be backed up by the facts. 

The last time a majority government found itself on the by-election hustings was in 2003, when the Liberals managed to hold to two of the three ridings up for grabs -- Témiscamingue and Lévis-et-Chutes-de-la-Chaudière -- while losing the third -- Perth-Wellington -- to the Progressive Conservatives.

On May 13th 2002, the governing Liberals won four out of seven by-elections, with the remaining ridings split three ways, with the Canadian Alliance, Progressive Conservative and New Democratic Parties each taking one. 

The victorious Canadian Alliance candidate, for the record, was none other than Stephen Harper, who the Liberals chose not to oppose out of courtesy to a party leader, not that it would likely have made much difference. 

Looking back still further, although it might first seem that 2000 was distinctly inauspicious year for the governing Liberals on the by-election front, the fine print reveals the full story. 

As was the case in Calgary Southwest the following year, the Liberals declined to run candidates in two of the three ridings that were contested in November 2000, again out of courtesy to a not-yet-House-seated party leader -- in this case, both Stockwell Day and Joe Clark. 

The third, however, they lost fair and square to the Progressive Conservatives.  

In 1999, however, the Liberals won four out of the five by-elections that year, with the NDP snagging the sole seat not taken by the majority governing party, which also won one of the two by-elections in 1998, with the other going to the Bloc Quebecois.

(Note: That's as far back as the Elections Canada archives seem to go, but if anyone wants to venture still further back into by-electoral history, feel free to post your findings in the comments, and I'll include them in a subsequent update.) 

PS: Just to get my (highly tentative and may well change before by-election day) predictions on the record: No change in standing for any party, with the Conservatives keeping both Calgary Centre and Durham, and the NDP holding Victoria. As such, the most interesting story of the night will be the margin of victory in Durham and whether the Liberals are able to re-take second place. 

UPDATE: Turns out that back in 2010, in response to a similar claim from the Conservative Party -- namely, that it was "rare for a governing party to win by-elections" -- the intrepid Aaron Wherry crunched the numbers for thirty years' worth of votes, and came to the same conclusion: 

Going back to 1968 then, a total of 53 seats last held by an incumbent government have been contested, 32 of those retained by the incumbent. Over that same period, the governing party has picked up a dozen seats held by opposition parties.

FACT CHECK UPDATE: Twitterversian @NDipperG, who works as an executive assistant to NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, points out that there has, of course, already been one by-election during the 41st Parliament -- in Toronto Danforth, to fill the seat left vacant after the death of NDP Leader Jack Layton. Given the unusual circumstances surrounding that particular vote, though, as well as the history of the riding in question, that particular result provides little insight into what the future holds for this majority government in the upcoming by-election series. 

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