It’s one year from a general election and one major party leader is still looking for his political footing. The NDP’s Jagmeet Singh has a lot riding on his bid to win a seat in Parliament in a B.C. by-election. And the best thing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau can do is avoid trying to be too clever.
Mr. Trudeau has a lot of levers that can affect the by-election, and Mr. Singh.
He can set the timing of the as-yet-unannounced vote in Burnaby-South. He could, if he chose, keep the NDP leader tied up in a West Coast campaign until April.
He could also let Mr. Singh walk into the Commons unopposed, with the “leader’s courtesy” that in the past allowed party leaders to run unopposed in by-elections – but if the Liberals decide to invoke that old-school notion it will be for tactical reasons, not out of courtesy.
Mr. Trudeau would be wise to resist the temptation to play those games. He should call the by-election, soon, and run a Liberal against Mr. Singh.
It is Mr. Trudeau, after all, who promised he’d do politics differently. As Prime Minister, he broke with tradition to campaign in by-election races, arguing that a leader should advocate for his party’s policies in every race.
The tactical tricks that the Prime Minister could play offer such potentially devastating scenarios that Liberals have been whispering about them – while the NDP frets.
The Burnaby-South seat was vacated by New Democrat Kennedy Stewart, who quit to run, successfully, for mayor of Vancouver. By law, Mr. Trudeau has until March 18 before he is required to call the by-election.
Such a long delay would leave the NDP leader spending half his time in Burnaby for months. And if Mr. Singh lost in April, the NDP would have a weakened leader, just months from a general election, when it may be too late to replace him.
But those scenarios would require Mr. Trudeau to take a cynical step. There are three other vacant ridings, and the PM must call a by-election in one of those ridings, Leeds-Grenville-Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes, by Oct. 30. And to call one by-election, but leave Mr. Singh waiting, would be a blatantly self-serving move.
And Mr. Singh would be well within his rights to complain the Liberals are afraid to face him – in Burnaby-South, and in the Commons.
The truth is, the Liberals don’t have much reason to be afraid right now. Mr. Singh’s leadership hasn’t exactly fired up the nation.
Liberals have floated the notion that they might extend the so-called “leader’s courtesy” to Mr. Singh, choosing not to run a candidate against the NDP leader to help him to a seat in the Commons.
Courtesy? It might sound like a return to civility, but the only reason the Liberals would return to this old-school tradition would be that they think it serves their interest. In private, the notion of leader’s courtesy makes a lot of political organizers giggle.
Some Liberals have suggested their party would be wise to let Mr. Singh win the by-election – because a loss might prompt the NDP to replace him with a new leader, who could be more threatening. Mr. Singh suggests the Liberals might not run because they are afraid: “If they don’t want to face the voters, that’s up to them.”
The Burnaby-South riding, and the two constituencies from which it was formed, have been NDP for years. But a few New Democrats have whispered that Mr. Singh might be in trouble; local Liberals believe they have a shot at knocking off a party leader.
Most importantly, this by-election is a democratic test. The riding is close to the Burnaby terminal for the controversial Trans-Mountain pipeline project that Mr. Trudeau approved, and Mr. Singh opposes. Both Mr. Singh and Mr. Trudeau should put their TMX positions close to the epicentre of the issue.
There’s no place for antiquated courtesies in 21st-century democracy. For all the cynical games of modern politics, the way to respect voters is to ask them for their vote. Mr. Singh has to win his place in Parliament. And Mr. Trudeau should stick to his past by-election policy, because he was right about this: Every leader should go out and face the voters, every time.