Most of the posting and punditry analysis of the three federal by-elections held this past Monday has focused on the deep meaning or not of possible immediate and longer-term electoral trends that might be indicated by the different results. Discussions, not unexpectedly, centre on traditional by-election turnout levels, profile of the candidates, the rural/urban "divide" and some bits on the resonance of messages or perceived political party ideologies.
I see another set of patterns in these by-elections with implications for all of the political parties and while this may sound counter-intuitive given the poor turnout, these are related to a desire by the public - in the sense of the grassroots, the plebs, the masses - to be closer to the action.
What are these common threads?
Local is where it's at. All three by-elections were called when their federal representatives chose to take a run at municipal politics. While I don't have the stats, this appears to be part of a trend in recent years of elected officials seeking positions at a "lower" level; a level closer to the people, viz. Joe Fontana, Dawn Black, Jim Watson. Municipalities in Canada, be they large cities like Winnipeg, mid-sized and fast-growing ones like Vaughan or rural regional service centres like Dauphin, have the most direct impact on our quality of life, on our environment, on our welfare and on our economy.
It is interesting in light of Samara's latest study of the motivations of MPs, that some of our most seasoned chose to offer to serve where they believed they could have a greater impact.
Now, while the low turnout in the by-elections could be simply be a result of voter fatigue stemming from back-to-back elections in those municipalities, I'd posit that it could just as easily be as a result of voters giving more import to and therefore interest in who represents them at the local rather than the federal level.
Grassroots are not involved in candidate choices. Here by "grassroots" I mean both the political party partisan member and the civically-minded engaged citizen.
In Vaughan, both of the leading candidates, Julian Fantino for the CPC and Tony Genco for the LPC were appointed and regardless the stated reasons there was deemed to be no need for a meeting of the membership. In the case of the LPC, there hasn't been a meeting of the membership related to the choice of a candidate in over 20 years, the incumbent having been uncontested or "protected" in six general elections. Some have suggested that Mr. Genco (and this is no reflection on his calibre as a candidate whatsoever) was appointed because the Party was unable to convince several others, including former National Director Rocco Rossi to take the plunge. Shame if that is so, but it also makes one wonder about the state of the riding association if their lack of ability to identify and convince - with much notice - good candidates with local roots to run. I don't know the circumstances, I admit, but one has to wonder just how engaged the association is with its own citizens relative to its engagement with its MP or national party. Open nominations are great ways to engage the public. LPC often seems to want to shut them out.
In Winnipeg North, the NDP chalks up their stunning loss of a flagship riding to the fact that their candidate Kevin Chief, while also of high calibre, was less known than the Liberal candidate and ultimate winner, Kevin Lamoureaux. But they fail to mention, as widely rumoured that their own grassroots refused to participate or participated lamely having been shunned from selecting their own candidate themselves. Kevin Chief was the choice of the outgoing MP and the party "elite". Glad to know the NDP have one too.
And guess what? Not that it would or did make much of a difference in Dauphin-Swan River-Marquette (CPC could probably run a stick of wood and still win), Stephen Harper too chose to effectively appoint the candidate, Robert Sopuck, so angering the former MP, Inky Mark, a former Reform MP to boot, that he endorsed the Green Party candidate Kate Storey.
Used to be that local associations of political parties acted to some extent as brokerages for the institutional party with the population both in terms of political expression and representation. Having a say on policy matters and in the choice of candidates was a way to balance power between Party and Public. What these by-elections illustrate to me is that the public already know where the real power lies. It lies with the people.
In the immortal words of John Lennon: right on!