National Column: Lessons of Jagmeet Singh’s week from self-inflicted hell

by Chantal Hebert

One of the first tasks of an opposition leader is to avoid providing a diversion from a government in trouble.

Over the past week, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has failed rather spectacularly at that basic task.

At a time when the prime minister is licking his wounds from a poorly executed visit to India, Singh’s travails over his relationship with the Sikh separatist movement have conveniently shifted the spotlight away from the Liberals.

For the most part, they and the Conservatives have taken pains not to pile on the rookie NDP leader. That is not a product of a sudden outbreak of charity.

The first have no interest in turning Singh into a political martyr in the eyes of his sizable religious community. And to have a hope of winning next yearís election the Conservatives need the New Democrats to hold their own against Justin Trudeauís Liberals.

In any event, both the Liberals and the Conservatives know from first-hand experience that media criticism usually hurts more than any number of partisan attacks. This week Singh was on the receiving end of a barrage of scathing commentary.

Here are some other take-aways from the NDP leaderís week from hell:

The whole thing could have been avoided. Singh first ran into trouble over the issue of Sikh separatism and the terrorism that has been associated with that cause on his first day on the job as NDP leader.

In an interview led by veteran CBC journalist Terry Milewski, Singh repeatedly evaded questions about the glorification in some quarters of the Sikh community of Talwinder Singh Parmar, the man widely considered to be the architect of the 1985 Air India bombing.

Singh is a federal rookie whose only political experience prior to becoming NDP leader was in opposition at the provincial level. At the time of his first-ballot victory he may have been unaware of the heightened degree of media scrutiny that attends a national leadership position.

But the NDP does not lack for seasoned strategists who would or should have known better. A minimum amount of due diligence in the aftermath of that initial CBC interview would likely have unearthed the time bombs that exploded in the partyís face this week.

To be forewarned is to be prepared. Judging by the scrambling that attended the Globe and Mail revelations that Singh had – in recent years – attended international events that featured speakers who openly advocated advancing the Sikh cause by violence means, the NDP brain trust was as unprepared to manage the issue as it was on the week after he became party leader.

In the same spirit, the open letter Singh penned on Thursday should have been offered for publication in October. It belatedly addressed many of the questions he had been dodging since his leadership victory. It also provided some needed personal and political context.

But the NDP leaderís explanations would have satisfied many more of his critics if they had been offered when he was still basking in the post-convention glow of having become the first Canadian from a visible minority to lead one of the main federal parties. Instead, they came on the heels of multiple attempts at evasion.

By proactively disclosing his participation in the past events that came to light this week, Singh could have jumped in front of the parade rather than wait for it to trample him.

Parsing the social media feed of some of Singhís most prominent fellow New Democrats, one is hard-pressed to find any defence of the leader.

The ranks of the discreet include the partyís foreign affairs and finance critics HÈlËne Laverdiere and Peter Julian. Both were backers of the current leader. Former rivals Guy Caron – now the party’s parliamentary leader – and leadership runner-up Charlie Angus also stayed out of the social media fray.

The discretion of most New Democrat tenors is inversely proportional to the amount of social media vitriol that is being poured on Singh from a variety of often-anonymous sources.

Those predictably include calls on the Canada-born leader to “go back to his country,” an invitation, as it happens, that is familiar to many of those of us who happen to be French-speaking.

If there is solace for Singh to be found it may be in the fact that many of the comments have been written by people who sound like they were never going to vote for a leader from the ranks of a visible minority in the first place.

On balance the silence of Singhís New Democrat fellow warriors is more symptomatic of a malaise over the leaderís political mismanagement of a potentially defining issue than the blatant racism of some of his social media critics.

Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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