Michael Taube: What the Kitchener Centre Provincial Byelection Means—and Doesn’t Mean

Michael Taube: What the Kitchener Centre Provincial Byelection Means—and Doesn’t Mean
Voters often approach general elections and byelections with a different lens, writes Michael Taube. (The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick)
Michael Taube
12/3/2023
Updated:
12/3/2023
0:00
Commentary

Voters often approach general elections and byelections with a different lens. The former is a specific vote that can contribute to a government’s election or re-election. The latter can be a multi-purpose vote to send a message about the satisfaction or dissatisfaction of a government, party, leader, or the political process.

Which brings us to the recent Kitchener Centre byelection. What did this result mean, and, of equal importance, what did it not mean?

Laura Mae Lindo, the riding’s NDP MPP, announced in July she was going to leave politics and join the University of Waterloo. She had held this seat since 2018, capturing it from one-term Liberal MPP Daiene Vernile. Before this, it had been represented by John Milloy (Liberal) from 2003–2014 and Wayne Wettlaufer (Progressive Conservative) from 1999–2003.
The provincial byelection was called for Nov. 30. The NDP nominated city councillor Debbie Chapman as its candidate. The PCs, who had finished second the past two elections, chose Rob Elliott, who had experience in government and the transportation sector. The Liberals, who had struggled mightily since losing power in 2018 and hadn’t been a factor in recent elections, selected management professional Kelly Steiss.

It seemed as if Kitchener Centre would go according to its normal script. The NDP would likely retain the seat, followed by the PCs and Liberals. The usual fourth place spot would go to the Greens, as it had for the riding’s previous seven elections.

That wasn’t the case.

Green Party candidate Aislinn Clancy, who is also a city councillor, gained traction early on. She ran neck-and-neck with Chapman and the NDP according to several polls, so much so that it seemed like there could potentially be a major upset.
The Greens ultimately won the riding on election night. There was an added twist to the story that caught people’s eyes, however.

Clancy received 11,334 votes, or 47.99 percent. The party’s best previous result in Kitchener Centre had occurred in 2022, when Wayne Mak received 4,980 votes, or 12.8 percent. It’s one of the biggest increases by a third party in Ontario, and one of the more significant in Canadian political history.

What happened to the other candidates? Chapman ended up with 6,312 votes, or a paltry 26.73 percent. Elliott finished well back in third place (3,109 votes, or 13.16 percent), and Steiss was a distant fourth (1,817 votes, or 7.69 percent).

Clancy will become only the second elected Green MPP in the Ontario Legislature, following current party leader Mike Schreiner. Doubling this small caucus is obviously a major accomplishment. They’re dreaming big for the next provincial election, which won’t be held until 2026.

You can’t blame the Ontario Greens for speculating this result could turn into a series of unexpected political riches. But in reality, it’s far from a seismic shift in the province’s political spectrum, and the progressive vote in general.

Kitchener Centre has leaned to the political left for over two decades. The Liberals controlled it for 18 years, and the NDP for the past five years. There have been some close calls. Milloy barely beat PC candidate Dave MacDonald in 2011, winning by 0.83 percent (15,392 votes to 15,069), and that was during Dalton McGuinty’s long tenure as Ontario premier.

Were there voter frustrations with the NDP and Liberals in Kitchener Centre? Absolutely. Several things likely worked against both parties, which could have been related to the candidates, leaders, or an inability to put out messaging and policies that resonated during the campaign. Nevertheless, the riding’s political compass worked to the benefit of another left-leaning party, the Greens, to make an electoral breakthrough.

Hang on. How could a political party that had never previously been competitive in this riding suddenly storm into contention? Other than voters expressing their displeasure with the main political parties, that is.

There are other dynamics to be considered. In particular, a long-term interest in environmental issues in the Golden Horseshoe region that encompasses various cities like Kitchener.

Many local politicians in that region, including right-leaning ones, focused on policies related to climate change, recycling, and environmentally friendly products long before the bulk of Ontario politicians did. I studied at the University of Guelph, which is only 30 minutes away from Kitchener, and remember this quite well. The two cities saw eye-to-eye on the relevance of including environmental issues in local political discourse.

It’s also worth noting that Schreiner, the Green leader, represents the riding of Guelph.

The Kitchener Centre byelection shouldn’t be regarded as a political earthquake just yet. It’s more of an isolated event in a specific Ontario region that has long had a greenish hue—and, now, a Greenish political hue.

Which doesn’t mean the other parties aren’t paying close attention. They are.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.