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Politics Trudeau has learned to embrace the manipulative election tactics he bemoaned

You might recall the Justin Trudeau of 2014, the one with longer hair and fondness for electoral reform who told packed halls of students that the reason politicians were out of touch with young people is they put short-term tactics ahead of long-term thinking.

The old-school pols, he said – hinting at then-prime minister Stephen Harper − focus on getting re-elected instead of the big picture. “Politics has been a source of frustration, of cynicism, of negativity, particularly federal politics these days,” he told students at the University of Western Ontario in September, 2014.

The Justin Trudeau of 2018, however, has more appreciation for short-term electoral tactics.

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One is keeping NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh cooling his heels, on the campaign trail for a by-election in the Burnaby South riding in B.C.

On Sunday night, Mr. Trudeau called a by-election in the Ontario riding of Leeds-Grenville-Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes. But he didn’t call by-elections in three other vacant ridings, including Burnaby South.

That might sound like a small matter of process. Liberals will be hoping most people pay no mind, hit the snooze button and move on.

But it really is a cynical political manoeuvre.

Mr. Singh announced in September that he’s running in Burnaby South, so the NDP Leader has to spend a lot of his time in the B.C. riding until the vote is held. It also means he will spend less time in Ottawa.

Mr. Trudeau is keeping Mr. Singh waiting. The Prime Minister has till March 18 to call the by-election, so the actual vote could be delayed to April. He could keep Mr. Singh sidelined on the hustings in B.C. If Mr. Singh were to lose the seat in April, it would hobble the NDP Leader just months before a general election, when it might be too late for the party to get a new leader. Neat trick!

Mr. Singh, of course, made a political mistake by not trying to find a seat earlier, so the Liberals get to laugh a little about piling on the misery.

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New Democrat MP Peter Julian called it “petty and manipulative,” and he is bang-on. The PM called one by-election. Why not all four?

Mr. Singh himself took pains to insist the real victims are the constituents of three ridings, who don’t get to choose their democratic representative for a while – presumably because his handlers convinced him he shouldn’t whine about being shivved by the PM.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh speaks to reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Oct. 29, 2018.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

“It certainly was an example of Justin Trudeau playing some petty political games,” Mr. Singh told reporters. “This is a serious problem because it shows a lack of respect for those people that live in ridings that don’t have representation.”

The Prime Minister brushed off questions from reporters about why he didn’t call all four by-elections at once with the assertion that the law allows him to call the three other by-elections later, so he can. Why does a prime minister do cynical, self-serving things? Because he can.

In the Commons, Mr. Trudeau suggested the fault lies with MPs who run for office, but don’t finish their four-year terms – presumably a complaint about Kennedy Stewart, who vacated the Burnaby South seat to run, successfully, to be mayor of Vancouver. Yet Mr. Trudeau didn’t cast the same criticism on Liberal MPs Stéphane Dion and John McCallum, who resigned after barely a year of their term, to accept his appointment to ambassadorships.

It’s not that Mr. Trudeau has to make it easy for Mr. Singh to get a seat in Parliament – far from it. There has been talk that the Liberals might decline to field a candidate against Mr. Singh, invoking a so-called “leader’s courtesy” to allow him to run unopposed.

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Courtesy, evidently, never really entered into Liberal calculations. They might skip the Burnaby South race if they think they cannot win, but not because they’ve read an old copy of Miss Manners’ Guide to Electoral Etiquette.

Nor should they. As Mr. Singh noted on Monday, some Burnaby South constituents are itching to have a say on the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, which would reach a terminus just outside the riding. They should – with an opponent like Mr. Singh on one side and a Liberal candidate defending the government record on the other. That’s democracy. Manipulating the dates of votes to mess with your opponent, on the other hand, is old-school cynicism.

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