Elections Canada placed an ad in the Toronto Star last weekend to advise us to be ready to vote on Monday, Nov. 25. Well, not us, exactly. If you happened to catch this ad and happened to care enough to read the smaller print, you'd see the only people who had to be ready were in some place called Toronto Centre. Now there are 2.5 million Torontonians but only 89,000 voters in Toronto Centre. So who exactly lives in that riding? Who knows? There's not a clue about the riding boundaries – no map, no nothing. Elections Canada didn't bother to include that bit of trivia.
In real life, how many citizens actually know the riding they live in? So unless one of the candidates knocks on your door or you see an election sign – which look a lot like a "for sale" sign – you might not even know there's a by-election going on. Which might explain the pathetic turnout in most by-elections, far worse even than the increasingly shameful turnout in general elections.
In some ways this inept and inefficient ad is a symbol of by-elections in general – obscure, known by few, and with meagre consequences. There are actually four by-elections on Nov. 25, two in rural Manitoba, one in Montréal, and of course the one in good old Toronto Centre (wherever that is), and the political class will inform you that the results are of monumental importance in determining the next Canadian government in two years time. To this I say a hearty donnez-moi une brisee.
Yes, the results make losers uncomfortable and the winners smug. But if a week is a long time in politics, what do you call two years? When the next federal election is held in 2015, these by-elections will be utterly forgotten, especially since they are representative of nothing at all. The two Manitoba seats have long been resolutely Conservative, the two urban ridings stubbornly Liberal. So if Mr. Harper's team loses one of his two – and Brandon is iffy thanks to internal rifts within his party there – or if Mr. Trudeau loses one of his, we must steel ourselves for hours, maybe even days, of sound and fury by the usual bloviating suspects that will surely signify nothing by the following weekend.
And yet there is one result that would truly shake up the status quo. If the NDP can pull off an upset in the Toronto Centre riding, the House of Commons will be graced by one of Canada's outstanding public intellectuals, Linda McQuaig, long a fearless advocate for a more just and equal Canada. The Prime Minister has been getting much publicity and polite reviews for his new book on hockey in Canada way back a century ago. As it so happens, Ms. McQuaig is also something of an author, though I bet Stephen Harper could take her hands down on a quiz about the birth of professional hockey.
She herself has rather different preoccupations, as you can judge by her nine books, seven of them best-sellers. In them Ms. McQuaig rather tramples on the PM's turf, since he is a "trained economist," if he says so himself. It's a nice coincidence, really: Ms. McQuaig's expertise is in shooting massive holes in the myths and dogmas of trained economists, especially those of the PM's neoliberal school.
To imagine her directly taking on Mr. Harper from across the aisle in Parliament makes one kvell with anticipation. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, according to The Globe's authoritative John Ibbitson, is "the best politician in the House of Commons, right now, by a country mile." Ms. McQuaig would take little time, I'd bet, to be seen as the best social-economist in the House by a country mile.
What Ms. McQuaig knows, maybe better than any other Canadian, is how the system is rigged to help the privileged gain even more privileges. Her series of books documents the many ways in which the tax system benefits the rich, how the deficit is manipulated as an excuse to cut services, how our addiction to oil is jeopardizing our future. She knows her stuff, and she supports her conclusions with hard evidence based on extensive research.
To make the contrast with Mr. Harper even more piquant, his speaking style and Ms. McQuaig's could hardly be more antithetical. She's a charismatic figure who speaks with scathing passion, withering humour, and yes, even an occasional expletive to make a point (which as an MP I'm guessing she may need to avoid). This does not precisely describe the Prime Minister's style.
Linda McQuaig's the embodiment, in short, of all those critics the Prime Minister boasts he couldn't care less about. And their confrontation in Parliament depends entirely on a by-election somewhere in the middle of Toronto on November 25.