In some ways, the results of four federal by-elections held on Monday don't matter much. They don't alter the balance of power in the House of Commons: The Conservatives are still a majority government, the New Democratic Party is still the Official Opposition, and the Liberals are still in third place in seat count. The mechanics of who runs Ottawa stay the same.
In other ways, however, much has changed. It would be foolish to read too little into these by-election results. Four ridings, two in Ontario and two in Alberta, offered a clear indication of how Canada's political sands have shifted. And the results bear out what polls have been saying for months: Voters no longer view Thomas Mulcair's NDP as their preferred alternative to Stephen Harper's Conservatives. Last election's Orange Wave isn't building. It is retreating. And a red wave is growing.
Justin Trudeau and his team have managed to resuscitate their party from near death. The Liberals' new-found popularity, as borne out in the by-election results, suggests that they have become the first choice of non-Conservative voters, and the main force to be reckoned with in the 2015 election. In all four ridings, the Liberal candidate finished ahead of the NDP – far ahead.
The most dramatic testament to this Liberal surge was in downtown Toronto's Trinity-Spadina riding, held for the NDP since 2006 by Olivia Chow, who resigned to run for mayor. The race was supposed to be hotly contested. In the end, it was a yawn. Liberal Adam Vaughan ended up winning handily, with nearly 54 per cent of the vote – almost 20 percentage points ahead of his NDP opponent, Joe Cressy. Since 1972, whenever Liberals have won the riding in a general election, they've gone on to form the government.
A few kilometres away, in the inner-suburban riding of Scarborough-Agincourt, the Liberals hung onto a long-held seat, as expected. But they grew their margin of victory over the Conservatives – with the NDP relegated to a very distant third place. As for the Tories, they surprised no one by holding onto the two Alberta seats. But here again, those uninterested in voting for the government went overwhelmingly Liberal, not NDP. In Fort McMurray-Athabasca, a normally solid Tory seat, the Liberals came a close second. Voter turnout was exceptionally low, but more than one-third of those who made it to the polls voted Liberal. The NDP candidate earned less than one-third the number of votes.
The next federal election is still a long way off, and both Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Mulcair are untested in a national campaign. A lot can change in a year. But the by-elections confirm that there are new dynamics at play. The New Democrats look to be sliding. The Liberals are surging. And the Conservatives have reason to worry.