By Jason Menard
An empty seat waiting for the music to stop on the Liberal leadership’s game of musical chairs, a party leader without a seat looking to make history, a former mayor returning to the fray after six years south of the border, and a former city councilor and radio host with a history of community work. Why, it looks like the sleepy Forest City has received quite a wake-up call with Stephen Harper’s snap by-election call.
And because of the make-up of the contenders vying for this federal seat, his bold move may end up working out perfectly as his polarizing, right-wing candidate could benefit from a split vote on the left.
When former Liberal MP Joe Fontana stepped down from his London North-Centre riding to take a stab at the mayor’s office, there was much talk about which Liberal leadership contender would be parachuted in to legitimize their position within the House of Commons.
Who’d have thought that since that first hint of a parachuting candidate into the region, the skies would soon be filled with strategically chosen MP-wannabes airlifted in for a shot at what’s traditionally been a non-descript riding.
The riding, traditionally a Liberal stronghold, now faces a Nov. 27 th election without a Liberal candidate. And while the Grits are crying foul about how the Prime Minister didn’t respect good ol’ Canadian common courtesy, they still find themselves behind the eight ball when it comes to time. Suggestions have been made that if either Bob Rae or Gerard Kennedy win the Liberal leadership, they’d suddenly find a home in London North-Centre. However, those best laid plans have been skewered by Harper’s decision. So in the end, the Liberals are left scrambling for a warm body to step in as the immediate favourite for this riding that bleeds red.
What makes what is traditionally a dull by-election process intriguing are the contenders to the throne. The intrigue was started with the sudden announcement that former London mayor Dianne Haskett was coming back to The Forest City after a six year exile. Haskett’s sudden return from Washington, combined with Harper’s snap announcement, have sent the conspiracy theorists a-twitter with the idea that this scenario was created through back-room planning and cunning – and it’s probably not too far from the truth.
Adding to the excitement is the announcement that Elizabeth May, the new leader of the Green Party, will run in the riding in an attempt to enable her suddenly surging party to earn its first seat – and to give the federal leader a legitimate voice in Ottawa. With the most recent Decima poll indicating that the Green Party enjoys 10 per cent support of decided voters, May’s political star power may create some interest in a left-leaning community.
Finally, former city councilor Megan Walker has made her intentions known that she’s seeking the NDP nomination. While not as big name-wise as the aforementioned duo, Walker’s been a fixture in the community, working in radio and supporting a number of community organizations, specifically those supporting women’s issues.
And while it’s easy to write this riding off as a Liberal win, there are so many intriguing sub-plots to this election that no one can accurately predict right now where this is going to go. Through name recognition out the window – all the candidates (even the unnamed Liberal) have it. So other factors will play an even greater role in the final decision.
Haskett was a polarizing figure in London politics, which was no better evidenced by her choice to not issue a Gay Pride day proclamation, because of her personal belief – a decision led her to face the wrath of the Ontario Human Rights Commission. In addition, Haskett also famously withdrew from campaigning for the last three weeks of the 1997 mayoral election – and still won. Love her or hate her, Londoners all have an opinion.
What works for Haskett is that she’s the only right winger in the region. And with a potential of three left-leaning candidates to split the vote, maybe Harper’s snap election call will turn out to be politically savvy.
After all, the Liberals are a rudderless ship for the time being, the Green Party is too green, and the NDP are the traditional bridesmaid – people seem to be willing to support their ideals, but not willing to hand them the reins of power. So what happens should none of Haskett’s opponents emerge as a candidate for left-leaners to rally around? The vote gets split, and the Conservatives can come up the middle to retake the riding that’s been Liberal since 1988.
Sure, the other parties may claim it’s not courteous, but I’m sure Harper will take victory over courtesy any day of the week!
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