Maxime Bernier is encouraged by the traction his brand new People’s Party of Canada gained in the byelections held Monday.
While none of his party’s candidates won a seat, candidate Laura-Lynn Tyler Thompson finished fourth in the B.C. riding of Burnaby-South, with 10.6 per cent of the vote.
“Babies start walking at eight months and our party was born only five months ago!” Bernier wrote on Twitter. “We must continue to grow at the same breakneck speed until October.”
Bernier started the People’s Party in September, quitting the Conservative Party after frequently butting heads with Andrew Scheer, who beat Bernier by a hair in the party leadership race a year before.
While the People’s Party had moderate success in Burnaby-South – University of Toronto political science professor Nelson Wiseman says that likely won’t be repeated in the upcoming federal election.
“I’ll be surprised if the People’s Party gets more than two per cent in the election,” Wiseman said.
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He explained that the party’s candidate in B.C., Thompson, was a controversial one, and that likely drew out more of a “protest vote,” which carried more weight because of the low turnout for byelections.
(The turnout in Burnaby-South on Monday was only 30 per cent, but in past general elections, it has been above 60 per cent.)
Thompson is a former talk show host and is known for her vocal opposition to B.C.’s sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) resource for schools, an opinion which led people to call her trans- and homophobic.
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She ran on a “Canadians first” campaign that was denounced as anti-immigration and racist by some supporters of rival candidates.
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She is also an anti-abortion advocate – a view that isn’t shared by the libertarian values of the People’s Party.
Political commentator Kate Harrison, vice-president of Summa Strategies, also noted that Bernier aimed a lot of resources at the Burnaby riding. That, along with Thompson’s high profile, shows that the riding is not a good barometer of the federal election.
The reason why the People’s Party won’t do as well in the fall election “is because you obviously can’t be in 338 ridings with the same level of intensity and resources and candidate recognition at once.”
Richard Johnston, UBC political science professor noted that the Ontario riding of York-Simcoe is more indicative of how much success Bernier and the People’s Party will have in the fall election, because as a strong Conservative riding, there was less chance of losing the seat if the vote was split between the two parties.
“I’m skeptical that they have the wherewithal to have a big impact in this election,” he said. “It didn’t happen in York-Simcoe where it seemed to me it was almost a more costless place to be doing this.”
The People’s Party only received 1.9 per cent of the vote in the Ontario riding — the Tories’ Scot Davidson took home 53.9 per cent of the vote.
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Peter Graefe, a political science professor at McMaster University, warned that you can’t draw strong conclusions from byelections because the political debate is quite different for each riding.
But he said the anti-abortion views of Thompson could have resonated with the religious right, who are frustrated with Scheer’s views on abortion, which could drive them to the People’s Party.
Bernier himself is not anti-abortion, but he said he was open to talking about it.
“She’s culturally very conservative where Bernie is not,” Johnston said, “but it may turn out that that she is more indicative, more of an avatar, of what that party’s appeal is likely to be.”
But he said the party would have a tough time appealing to staunch conservatives.
“For cultural conservatives, the task is to defeat the Liberals and running a second party on the right doesn’t promote that end,” he said.
Harrison also explained that it’s likely Bernier won’t be able to focus as much of his attention or his party’s attention on ridings as he had done in Burnaby.
Wiseman also noted that both the Conservatives and the People’s Party are going to push immigration in the upcoming election, and that is another issue which could divide the vote.
“People know that when you talk about real conservative values, we are the principal alternative,” Bernier said the day after the byelection. “People are fed up with the traditional politicians, like Andrew Scheer and Justin Trudeau.”
And as Global News chief political correspondent David Akin notes, there will be close races where the Conservatives could lose if Bernier takes away just two per cent of votes from them.
“The extent to which then Bernier has success probably will be a bit of an indication of the extent to which the Conservatives have difficulty in the next election,” Graefe said.
Wiseman’s two per cent estimate is in line with the People’s Party candidate outcomes in the other two byelections – in Outremont in Quebec, James Seale received 2.1 per cent of the votes (322 votes) and in York-Simcoe in Ontario, Robert Geurts came fifth with 1.9 per cent (314 votes).
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Going forward, Johnston said it’s likely Bernier will have trouble raising money to be able to compete with the other parties, which have decades of experience behind them.
But Bernier’s Quebec heritage could offer a boost in Quebec, Wiseman explained, if he performs well in the French language debates.