OTTAWA – A triumphant Justin Trudeau contends the Liberals’ stunning byelection victory in Quebec’s nationalist heartland is a vote of confidence in his government’s economic agenda.
Implicit in the prime minister’s assertion is that it’s also a vote of confidence in the man who’s presided over that economic agenda, embattled Finance Minister Bill Morneau.
Opposition parties counter that Monday’s upset Liberal win in Lac-Saint-Jean was more the product of a well-known local candidate – Richard Hebert, the outgoing mayor of Dolbeau-Mistassini – and voters’ belief that their region stands to benefit by siding with the party in power.
But they’re also conceding the result shows their newly minted leaders – Conservative Andrew Scheer, New Democrat Jagmeet Singh and Bloquiste Martine Ouellet – have a lot of work to do to become competitive in the province most likely to determine the outcome of the next federal election in 2019.
WATCH: Conservatives ‘not concerned’ in Lac-Saint-Jean byelection upset
The Liberal win in Lac-Saint-Jean couldn’t have come at a better time for the government, on the eve of a crowd-pleasing economic update which it hopes will turn the page on weeks of controversy over Morneau’s proposed small business tax reforms and his own personal finances and ethics.
Speaking shortly before Morneau tabled the update Tuesday, Trudeau argued the victory demonstrates that voters are happy with the Liberal government’s efforts to boost economic growth.
“It’s a real pleasure to be able to see that in rural Quebec, but across the country, Canadians are responding extremely positively to the economic message we’ve put forward and the hard work we’ve done, as we’ll see this afternoon with the fiscal statement,” he said.
“The promise we made to Canadians to put money in the pockets of the middle class, to grow the economy through investing in our communities is actually delivering.”
He boasted that Canada has the fastest growing economy among G7 countries and that his government has created 400,000 new jobs.
In the House of Commons, Trudeau repeatedly referenced the Lac-Saint-Jean result to deflect continued opposition charges that Morneau put himself in a conflict of interest by failing to put his shares in his family’s pension management and human resources company into a blind trust.
“Last night we got an opportunity to hear from Quebecers and people across the country about how we were doing as a country and how we are doing in terms of growing the economy,” he said.
“The priorities that Canadians showed actually demonstrated that we are on the right track.”
Hebert snatched Lac-Saint-Jean away from the Conservatives, winning 38.6 per cent of the vote – the first Liberal victory in the riding in 37 years. His win in the midst of unrelenting mid-mandate controversy for the government bodes well for the Liberals, who snagged 40 of Quebec’s 78 seats in 2015 but need to do even better in 2019 to compensate for expected losses elsewhere.
The Tory candidate came second, 14 points behind Hebert, followed closely by the Bloc Quebecois contender. The NDP candidate, who’d come close to defeating Tory veteran Denis Lebel in 2015, finished a distant fourth Monday with less than 12 per cent.
In a second byelection Monday in traditional Tory turf in Edmonton, the Conservatives scored a predictably massive win in Sturgeon River-Parkland, where Dane Lloyd, a 26-year-old with a history of controversial social media posts, took 77.4 per cent of the vote.
The two byelections were the first electoral tests of leadership for Scheer, Singh and Ouellet.
Ouellet, at least, could take solace in the fact that her party increased its vote share by five percentage points in Lac-Saint-Jean, even if it could not win back a riding that encompasses the home bases of two previous Bloc leaders: Lucien Bouchard and Michel Gauthier.
The same could not be said for Scheer and Singh.
Scheer, a Saskatchewan MP who eked out a win over Quebecer Maxime Bernier in the Conservative leadership race last spring, left it to analysts to determine why his party lost the seat Lebel had held since 2007. He issued a statement Tuesday congratulating Lloyd on his Edmonton victory, without even mentioning the Quebec byelection.
However, one of his Quebec MPs, Alupa Clarke, acknowledged that Scheer is not well known in the province.
“It would be difficult to argue that he’s more known than Trudeau,” Clarke conceded.
“But Mr. Scheer is an excellent leader … and for the next months and the next two years, we’ll do everything we can to make sure Quebecers meet him.”
He attributed the Liberal victory to people voting “for the person they know most” and their tendency to support the party in power.
For his part, Singh issued a statement saying he’s “excited” about the opportunity to build NDP support, despite the byelection results that “were not in our favour.”
The NDP has been struggling to regain the momentum it experienced under the late Jack Layton in 2011, when a so-called orange wave in Quebec vaulted the party into official Opposition status for the first time. The party lost most of those historic gains to the Liberals in the 2015 election.
One of the NDP’s Quebec MPs, Pierre Nantel, made waves during the leadership race with the suggestion he and other Quebec New Democrats might prefer to sit as independents if any of the non-Quebec candidates were to take the helm of the party. He also suggested that Singh, a practicing Sikh who wears a turban, was not in line with Quebecers’ views about secularism.
WATCH: Conservative Dane Lloyd wins Sturgeon River-Parkland byelection
But Alexandre Boulerice, another Quebec NDP MP, said Tuesday that Singh can’t be blamed for Monday’s outcome, which he called “really disappointing.” He noted that Singh only took the helm a month ago, in the midst of the byelection campaign.
“For us, it means that we have to work harder in the next 24 months to regain the confidence of citizens,” Boulerice said, conceding that Singh is “not well known” and the party “will have to work on that.”
He said Singh’s turban will be an issue for “a minority” of people in Quebec and elsewhere across the country but he expressed confidence that will become less relevant as Singh begins staking out his election platform.
While most attention focused on the Quebec upset, the Liberals also needled the Tories over their new Edmonton MP’s controversial social media postings, in which he once referred to women’s rights advocates as “feminazis” and tried to create a Canadian chapter of the National Rifle Association, among other things.
In response to a planted Liberal question, Status of Women Minister Maryam Monsef told the Commons that “when members across the aisle label our daughters as feminazis, as Barbies, it sets us all back.”
Calgary Conservative MP Michelle Rempel challenged the government to tackle real issues facing women – “like correcting the sham of the missing and murdered indigenous women (inquiry)” – rather than arguing about which party is “more sexist.”
Outside the Commons, Rempel said she’s “looking forward to seeing what (Lloyd) does when he comes to Ottawa,” noting that he’ll find he’s joining a caucus with plenty of strong women and a track record of defending women’s rights.