'Sexy' byelection? You bet, expert says of St. Boniface race

Mary Agnes Welch says voters' ballots will count more than usual in St. Boniface on July 17, because the provincial byelection could "shift the tone and the balance and the makeup of the House."

'The stakes for the 2 opposition parties are pretty high,' says Mary Agnes Welch of Probe Research

Mary Agnes Welch and Raymond Hébert both say the NDP and the Liberals have an advantage in St. Boniface, which hasn't elected a Conservative MLA since 1932. (Rudy Gauer/CBC)

"Sexy" and "byelection" aren't usually said in the same breath, but St. Boniface voters might want to pay attention to politics this hot July because that's how one expert is painting the race in their riding.

"You actually have a chance in St. Boniface to just shift the tone and the balance and the makeup of the House," Mary Agnes Welch said of the July 17 vote in the Manitoba riding.

"If this was at any other time, this would be … a pretty sexy election."

The riding was left vacant by the March resignation of Greg Selinger, a deeply unpopular former NDP premier who was pushed to step down by current NDP Leader Wab Kinew. The byelection candidates are New Democrat Blandine Tona, Liberal Dougald Lamont, Progressive Conservative Mamadou Ka and Green Françoise Therrien Vrignon.

Welch, a senior researcher at Probe Research, and Raymond Hébert, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of St. Boniface, both say the NDP and the Liberals have a lot at stake in the provincial byelection.

Welch said the exciting thing for voters is that each ballot cast could have significant weight in provincial politics.

"Your vote always matters, but it really matters in a byelection, when the turnout is typically very low, when the stakes for the two opposition parties are pretty high," she said.

"A byelection is really a wildcard, especially in the middle of July, especially when you've got sort of two opposition parties that really need, want to win this byelection."

If the NDP loses the seat, it would be a significant blow to a party trying to rejuvenate itself after Brian Pallister's Progressive Conservatives knocked them out of power in 2016, Welch says.

A byelection is really a wildcard, especially in the middle of July, especially when you've got sort of two opposition parties that really need, want to win this byelection.- Mary Agnes Welch,  a senior researcher at Probe Research

The Liberals, on the other hand, would regain official party status if they won, which brings new money and status in the legislature, and their new leader would have a seat.

"This could be transformative for them," said Welch, who pointed out much of the party's executive resigned this spring.

"This is a test for Dougald Lamont and his very new leadership and his very troubled third-place party, and it's also a test for the NDP in terms of, you know, can they hold on to the former premier's seat, and if they can't, what does that say about the party?"

The Progressive Conservatives are unlikely to throw a lot of resources into a riding that historically has been NDP or Liberal, especially since a strong Liberal showing would hurt the official Opposition New Democrats, she says.

"I think that's kind of the thinking: Anything that damages the NDP is good for the Tories."

Welch believes the NDP have a big advantage in the party's organizational strength, which is critical for getting voters out. Money, manpower, lists of party supporters and even the ability to rent vans to help people get to the polls are critical, she says.

"Traditionally … the NDP are much better at that."

However, Welch adds, if Lamont hits the pavement hard and comes across well at voters' doors, he has a chance.

"I think there probably is this residual anger and disdain for the NDP, even in the former premier's riding," she said. "Does that make NDP voters stay home because they're just so totally cheesed with the NDP?"

The Green Party also could affect the outcome, Welch says.

"If the Liberals do manage to win, there will be a bit of parsing of the numbers to see how many Green votes essentially were stolen from the NDP. Did the Greens and the NDP split any votes?"

Advantage to NDP

Hébert still calls the byelection a three-way race, although he agrees the advantage is with the NDP and the Liberals because the last time a Conservative represented the riding was in 1932.

"I think it's highly important for Dougald Lamont as leader of the Liberals. I think Wab Kinew would desperately love to have a victory," said Hébert, a longtime resident of the area known as Winnipeg's French quarter.

"In terms of Brian Pallister's leadership as premier, I think it can be viewed as a referendum." 

The traditionally low voter turnout during byelections also makes it less predictable, and even the Greens could do well, Hébert says.

"They could be a spoiler, actually, for the NDP."

The NDP has a couple of problems in the riding that will help the Liberals, he says. Kinew hasn't established himself as a strong leader and Tona doesn't have Selinger's history as a strong member of the ruling party, he points out.

Hébert says the situation reminds him of the 1988 election, when turbulence in the NDP helped Gary Filmon become premier and gave the Liberals, led by Sharon Carstairs, a strong showing in the general election. St. Boniface elected Liberal Neil Gaudry, who remained the area's MLA until he died of a heart attack in 1999 and Selinger was elected.

"All of this sort of centred around St. Boniface in some way, and I think we're seeing history repeat itself here this time around, so there could be a surprise if Dougald Lamont was elected."

About the Author

Lara Schroeder

Copy editor

Lara Schroeder is an online copy editor for CBC Manitoba who dabbles in writing and radio. She started her career as a reporter at small-town community newspapers, but her English degree and habits nurtured by her English teacher dad and grammatically meticulous mom steered her toward editing. Her many jobs have included editing at the Toronto Star, the National Post, the Toronto Sun and the Winnipeg Free Press.

With files from Donna Carreiro


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