National Column: ‘To demand better, to dream bigger’

by Chantal HÈbert

Singh’s victory brings diversity, heralds end of baby boomers’ reign in Canadian politics

With the selection of Jagmeet Singh as NDP leader, the 2019 federal leadership lineup is now complete.

It will be strikingly different from that on offer only two years ago on not one but two significant scores.

It will also be more representative of 21st-century Canada.

For the first time, there will be someone drawn from the ranks of Canada’s visible minorities on the leaders podium.

And for the first time in the living memory of most voters, there will not be a baby boomer vying to become prime minister on behalf of one of the three main parties.

Singh is 38, the same age as Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer. At 45, Justin Trudeau is the oldest of the three main party leaders.

The long reign of the generation that dominated Canada’s life for the past decades has drawn to an end.

There is little that is revolutionary about either change. One in five Canadians hails from a visible minority and that proportion will grow over the next decade.

In 2019, the millennials will overtake the baby boomers to become the largest cohort of Canadian voters. They already pulled their weight in the last election. By voting in greater numbers and by favouring the Liberals, they were instrumental in giving Trudeau a governing majority.

In the run-up to the leadership vote, Singh signed up the most new members but he would not have won on the first ballot without the tacit or active support of part of the NDP base. With almost 54 per cent of the vote, he finished more than 30 points ahead of runner-up Charlie Angus.

Singh did draw much support from the South Asian community. And he probably had an easier time getting his vote out because it was more concentrated than that of his rivals.

But without his supporters the NDP might have been hard pressed to fill even the mid-sized Toronto hotel room it had chosen to hold Sunday’s leadership event. And the audience would certainly have been less diverse.

It is that diversity that will likely stick in the minds of the strategists of the other parties – in particular the Liberals. The NDP will still come at them from the left, but it will offer multicultural Canada the added attraction of bringing a long-awaited element of diversity at the head of the federal table.

Singh could not be more different from Thomas Mulcair – the leader he succeeds – but they have in common that they are power-driven political figures. They both play to win.

Will Singh’s victory further damage the fragile bridge between the NDP and Quebec? To thatquestion there is no definitive answer. But then it is not as if any of the also-rans had emerged as much of a Quebec favourite. One way or the other, Singh will have an impact in the province.

He does not hold a seat in the House of Commons and he is unfamiliar with federal politics. The first matters less than the second. Part of Mulcair’s underestimated legacy is a caucus that is more than up to the task of holding the parliamentary fort – in French and in English.

Singh already has a parliamentary leader at his disposal in the shape of Nathan Cullen, the popular British Columbia MP and former leadership contender who supported Singh’s bid.

The issues will be different, or at least the angle on them will take some getting used to. But some of the dynamics Singh encountered as a member of the Ontario legislature will be familiar. That starts with a
progressive electorate whose first concern is to keep the Conservatives – be they of the Mike Harris or the Stephen Harper brand – out of power.

It also includes an incumbent who is attractive or at least not as offensive as the Conservative alternative to many left-leaning voters. On that score, Scheer has to be hoping that Singh will give Trudeau more of a run for his money, for it usually takes a divided progressive vote for the Conservatives to win power.

A word in closing: some NDP strategists had hoped it would take one more ballot to elect aleader, if only to keep the media spotlight on the attention-starved party a little while longer.

But for better or for worse for the New Democrats, Singh’s arrival on the federal scene is a story that will be more compelling for far longer than a week of leadership machinations.

Chantal HÈbert is a national affairs writer.
Her column usually appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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