St. Boniface byelection win huge for Liberals, unmitigated disaster for NDP

Very few byelections have a long-term impact, especially two years out from a general election. Tuesday’s byelection win for Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont in St. Boniface will likely be an exception.

Dougald Lamont put leadership on line and won, as NDP's self-inflicted wounds have yet to fully heal

Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont posted a big win for his party on Tuesday. (Radio-Canada)

Very few byelections have a long-term impact, especially two years out from a general election.

Tuesday's byelection win for Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont in St. Boniface will likely be an exception. 

The stakes were extremely high for Manitoba's two opposition parties.

If the NDP could not hold on to a seat they held for almost 20 years, what would that say about its prospects for a comeback, or about Wab Kinew's leadership?

Kinew forced the resignation of the previous MLA and former premier Greg Selinger. Selinger had a loyal following in St. Boniface and the circumstances of his departure are not forgotten.

NDP candidate Blandine Tona clearly considered Kinew a liability as there was not a single photo or mention of him in her campaign literature or her website. Political parties normally seek to showcase a new leader at every opportunity, not hide him. It was bizarre.

It is clear the NDP's self-inflicted wounds have yet to fully heal.

For the Liberals, Dougald Lamont put his leadership on the line, and possibly the long-term fate of his party, by running in St. Boniface.

Win and you're a hero for reinstating the Liberals as a recognized party in the legislature for the first time in a generation. Lose and your shaky grip on the party becomes shakier still.

For the moment at least, Dougald Lamont can justifiably savour his unambiguous victory.

Greens play solid ground game

For the first time in Manitoba, the Greens allowed themselves to believe they had a shot, with a strong candidate in Françoise Therrien Vrignon and a more solid ground game than in earlier elections.

Even the remote possibility of an upset convinced national leader Elizabeth May to come to St. Boniface to lend a helping hand, but it was not to be.

The Greens did increase their percentage of the vote to a respectable 16 per cent. The consolation prize was to come in third ahead of the PCs.

It was a bad night for Premier Brian Pallister's Progressive Conservatives. 

Even if they never expected to win, put little money in the campaign, and their candidate Mamadou Ka was almost invisible, it does not look good for a governing party to come in fourth behind the Greens.

They might take solace though in the fact that St. Boniface is not really representative of the Manitoba electorate.

For one thing, the Conservatives have not been serious contenders in the area since the 1930s; the Conservative base is miniscule. St. Boniface has a long history of alternating between Liberal and NDP MLAs. It switched again.

Some have suggested the byelection was a referendum on the performance of the Pallister government. It wasn't. The verdict on that question was in before the writs were even dropped.

Strong Francophone community

St. Boniface is also atypical in that it has the largest concentration of Francophone voters in the province, around 30 per cent. Language and cultural issues often play a role in the area's politics.

The fact that both the PCs and the NDP fielded candidates who had immigrated from Francophone African countries is illustrative of the transformation which has taken place over the last two decades.

French-speaking immigrants have been welcomed into the community and around 20 per cent of the student body at the University of St. Boniface is of African origin. They in turn have taken increasingly prominent roles in the arts, in education, in community organizations and in politics.

Although they were much talked about, language and cultural issues had virtually no impact on the outcome because all four candidates were basically in agreement on issues of importance to francophone voters. 

Helped by the disarray in the NDP, Dougald Lamont also benefited from the strong organizational support of the federal Liberals, especially popular MP Dan Vandal.

Federal Liberals have usually been very circumspect in their support of their hapless provincial cousins, if they supported them at all. Federal Liberal administrations preferred working with moderate provincial NDP governments over Tories.

That calculus no longer holds and it is in the federal Liberals' interest to keep the NDP weak everywhere, with a view to next year's federal election.

Pallister might be ultimate winner

For the NDP, the results are an unmitigated disaster and the postmortems will be painful.

While losing a seat when trying to make a comeback is bad, the situation is made much worse by whom they lost it to.

Until now, Wab Kinew was the only recognized opposition party leader in the legislature. From now on, he will be competing for attention in attacking the government with a resurrected Liberal Party.

Every day the legislature sits will be a painful reminder of the loss of St. Boniface.

Longer-term, in spite of the dismal outcome for his candidate, Brian Pallister might be the ultimate winner of the St. Boniface byelection.

If Dougald Lamont succeeds in re-energizing the Liberal Party, the centre-left vote will be split, virtually ensuring Pallister's re-election.

The byelection will have an effect beyond St. Boniface's borders, with consequences in the legislature that could have an impact for years.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

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About the Author

Roger Turenne is a political analyst for the newspaper La Liberté and Radio-Canada. He is a former Canadian diplomat and a former advisor to the Manitoba government on language policy.


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