There will be four by-elections on Monday March 17 in ridings won by the Liberals in the last election. Three of the four are in urban constituencies won by wide margins by well known incumbents, all of whom were members of Paul Martin's cabinet. In the 2006 election in Toronto Centre Bill Graham won with 52.2% of the vote; in the Toronto riding of Willowdale Jim Peterson had 55.2% while in Vancouver Quadra Stephen Owen won 49.1% of the vote. The fourth, in the northern Saskatchewan riding of Desnethé--Missinippi--Churchill River, elected Liberal Gary Merasty in 2006 by a mere 67 votes out of 24,636 cast as he won just 41.4% of the vote.
They are seen as a test of Stéphane Dion's leadership because there does appear to be a real lack of confidence in his leadership within the Liberal party, not just by the usual suspects in the media. TC isn't sure, however, that the by-elections provide much of a test.
In the case of Toronto Centre Liberal candidate Bob Rae is better known than his predecessor and could thus top Graham's 2006 performance. By comparison Martha Hall Findlay is not nearly as well known in her Willowdale riding (she ran previously in Newmarket--Aurora in 2004 where she lost narrowly to Belinda Stronach), but should win easily although her vote percentage could well fall short of the Liberal share in 2006.
The Conservatives could easily win the Saskatchewan riding (which they did win in 2004) but it may not be of any significance. The NDP is a factor here too (Rick Laliberté won this riding in 1997 and then was re-elected as a Liberal in 2000). Their candidate is Brian Morin. The Liberal candidate is Joan Beatty a former NDP cabinet minister in the Calvert government who defected to the Liberals just after the last provincial election. She might confront resentment at the opportunism of her move. TC certainly has not been able to find any hard information to suggest which way the political winds may be blowing in northern Saskatchewan, but purely local factors could well predominate.
In Vancouver Quadra the Liberal candidate is former BC cabinet minister Joyce Murray, who previously represented a riding quite distant from Quadra. Her situation looks much like that of Martha Hall Findlay at the riding level.
The public opinion evidence can best be described as unclear. The last Angus Reid Online Poll found the Conservatives well ahead in BC outperforming their support in 2006, but trailing the Liberals in Ontario by roughly the same margin as in 2006. By contrast the most recent Harris-Decima found the two parties approximately tied in both BC and Ontario in terms of their three week averages, meaning better Liberal support in BC than 2006 but a weaker performance in Ontario.
The impact on a possible federal election is relatively simple to assess: a Liberal sweep by higher percentages than in 2006 would put us on the road to an early election. A perceived setback for the Liberals would likely postpone a federal election at least until the autumn.
The debate about Dion's leadership seems almost pointless to TC. He will lead the Liberals in the next election regardless, and he could even win. Typically governments lose elections; opposition parties don't win them. While an upset by Dion doesn't seem at all likely, don't forget that the inept Joe Clark defeated Pierre Trudeau in 1979. Five years of unemployment and growing inflation are what made the difference then. The economy in Canada is strong today, but the deterioration now happening south of the border will get here eventually, so the outcome of the next election cannot be predicted this month with any certainty, and the by-elections, whatever the outcome, won't mean a thing in six months.