Stephen Harper is a cunning political strategist. The three ridings in which Mr. Harper sent voters to the polls in Monday's by-elections are all in Quebec, a province in which the opposition Liberals are struggling mightily. Three other recently vacated seats - two in Ontario, one in British Columbia - would likely have resulted in Liberal victories, but the Prime Minister declined to call votes there. Mr. Harper cleverly set the Liberals up for a fall.
Of course, the Prime Minister could not have known just how bad a fall it would be. The Liberals were guaranteed to fare poorly in the ridings of St-Hyacinthe-Bagot and Roberval-Lac St. Jean, each of which gave them fewer than ten per cent of votes in the last federal election. But their defeat at the hands of the NDP in Outremont, a Montreal constituency they had held nearly uninterrupted since 1935, was a major upset. Coupled with the Conservatives taking Roberval-Lac St. Jean away from the Bloc Québécois (St-Hyacinthe-Bagot stayed in Bloc hands, as expected), Monday's result has put Liberal leader Stéphane Dion under the microscope. The perception is that while Mr. Harper has his party on the rise, Mr. Dion's is in disarray.
Certainly, there is cause for Liberal concern. The party's failed campaign in Outremont, and to a lesser extent its dismal fourth-place finish in St-Hyacinthe-Bagot, has only added to perceptions that were common beforehand. Its organization, both on the ground and at the highest levels, is in rough shape. There are few signs that the public, particularly in Quebec, has been inspired by Mr. Dion's leadership. And Mr. Dion's political judgment has again been called into question with the sound defeat of Jocelyn Coulon, whom he handpicked to run in Outremont.
But even aside from Mr. Harper's cherry-picking of ridings, Monday's votes - like all by-elections - were a poor measure of where the parties really stand. Unlike in general campaigns, the focus in such races is on local candidates more than national leaders - meaning the NDP profited to an unusual extent from the high profile of its Outremont candidate, former provincial minister Thomas Mulcair, just as the Tories did from having popular Roberval mayor Denis Lebel carry their banner. Voters in by-elections, aware that their selection will have little bearing on who forms government, are also more apt to register protest votes, helping the NDP in particular. And without having to run national campaigns, parties are able to flood individual ridings with volunteers - something the NDP did to great effect in Outremont.
With all of these extenuating circumstances, the Liberals should not take Monday's results as a definitive statement on Mr. Dion's leadership, as a parade of anonymous party members have suggested in media reports. He should be judged on what shape the Liberals are in nationally, not how they fared in less than one per cent of the country's ridings.