Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's Liberals were hit with ballot-box backlash last night when they lost a long-held Newfoundland riding to the Progressive Conservatives in one of seven by-elections the Official Opposition had billed as a "referendum on corruption" in Ottawa.
Tory candidate Rex Barnes, a popular local councillor and paramedic, beat onetime Newfoundland provincial premier Beaton Tulk by about 740 votes, to take the rural riding of Gander-Grand Falls by a four-percentage-point margin.
The surprise win takes from the federal Liberals a once-safe seat that they held for about 28 years under former MP George Baker, who was appointed to the Senate in March.
"There comes a time for a change and people have sent a loud, clear message to the Jean Chrétien government that their arrogance has to stop," Mr. Barnes said in an interview. "They wanted a new face and breath of fresh air in the House of Commons."
Deputy Prime Minister John Manley, speaking in Toronto last night as the returns were coming in, warned against reading too much into the results. He conceded that the recent controversy over a report by the Auditor-General that heaped scathing criticism on sponsorship contracts to Liberal-friendly firms, may have had something to do with the outcome of the by-elections.
"I don't think we've had good press lately. I think generally Canadians feel some concern about what they've been hearing."
He disputed the Canadian Alliance's contention that the by-elections were a referendum on corruption, but he added the Liberal government will make changes in response to voters' concerns.
"In a by-election, the voters have a chance to send a message," he said. "Obviously you take any message you receive from the voters very seriously. . . . We need to take into account there are some things some people will be upset about and we will have to make some changes."
Tory officials chalked up the Gander-Grand Falls victory to a mixed bag of frustrations, including a local doctor shortage, perceived Liberal arrogance in Ottawa and apathy over fisheries, and the fact that Mr. Chrétien appointed Mr. Tulk as a candidate in Gander-Grand Falls rather than allow a nomination fight.
"You had the Prime Minister buying those luxury Challenger jets when helicopters are falling out of the sky and this is an airport town," Bill Dalton, Tory campaign manager in Gander, said of voter displeasure with Mr. Chrétien last night.
The Gander-Grand Falls upset notwithstanding, the Liberals easily retained the other Newfoundland riding of Bonavista-Trinity-Conception. The seat was vacated by former industry minister Brian Tobin when he abruptly quit federal politics in January.
Liberal candidate John Efford, a former provincial cabinet minister, trounced Tory contender Michelle Brazil by more than 12,600 votes, or a 53-percentage-point margin.
Early returns suggested the Liberals would still cruise to victory in three of five other by-elections taking place across Canada last night and that new Canadian Alliance Leader Stephen Harper was assured of his seat in the suburban Alberta riding of Calgary Southwest.
With results still coming in, all eyes were on the southwestern Ontario riding of Windsor West. The Canadian Press declared Brian Masse, the NDP candidate, the winner. Mr. Masse defeated Liberal candidate Richard Pollock.
In Montreal, Liberal candidate Massimo Pacetti was declared winner by CP in Saint-Léonard-Saint-Michel, the riding left vacant by former cabinet minister Alfonso Gagliano amid allegations of political interference.
In the other Montreal by-election, Liberal contender Liza Frulla, a former provincial Liberal cabinet minister, was expected to win easily the Verdun Saint-Henri Saint-Paul Pointe Saint-Charles seat.
Mr. Harper, whose campaign to get to Ottawa was made easier when neither the Liberals nor the Tories ran candidates in his suburban Calgary riding, told reporters yesterday that he was pleased with the impending victory.
"What can I say?" he said. "We've been feeling pretty good about it since the beginning. I feel, despite the lack of visibility for the campaign, for the by-election, in spite of the lack of major opponents, that we did all the things that you should do in a campaign."
In Winnipeg, Liberal candidate Raymond Simard was expected to win the riding of Saint Boniface, which has sent Liberals to Ottawa in all but two elections since 1924.