National Column: Trudeau plays waiting game with Singh

by Chantal Hebert

By sitting on a byelection call for the B.C. riding of Burnaby South, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is deliberately stalling NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh’s bid to enter the House of Commons.

In so doing, the prime minister is merely using his prerogative to wait up to six months after a vacancy occurs to set a date to fill it. Technically, he has until mid-March to call a vote in Burnaby South.

But by forcing Singh to cool his heels for no reason other than because he can, Trudeau is lowering the bar on what had until now been considered byelection fair play on the part of a prime minister.

The longer this goes on, the harder it will be for Trudeau to continue to claim the high ground for his Liberals.

But first, some background.

On the weekend, a byelection was called for Dec. 3 in the riding of Leeds-Grenville-Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes. Voters there will choose a replacement for Conservative MP Gordon Brown, who passed away last spring.

Trudeau had until Tuesday to call the Ontario byelection, and was widely expected to set the same date for a vote in Burnaby South.

It has been almost three months since Singh announced he would run for that seat, which was left vacant when New Democrat MP Kennedy Stewart resigned to run, successfully, for mayor of Vancouver. If all went well in the byelection, the New Democrats believed Singh would enter the House before year’s end.

After all, it had been the practice of Trudeau’s predecessors to extend the courtesy of a swift byelection call to seatless opposition leaders.

Brian Mulroney, Jean Chretien, Stockwell Day and Stephen Harper all benefited from the practice. So did Joe Clark, even as – in contrast with the others – he was not taking over the leadership of the official Opposition. In his second incarnation as Tory leader, Clark re-entered the Commons to lead the fourth party.

For the record and with the notable exception of Harper, all those leaders – like Singh – initially sought a federal seat outside their home province.

On the weekend, a Liberal spokesperson justified the decision to make the NDP leader wait by pointing out he had declined to run in any of the byelections that have taken place over his first year as leader.

But that response is disingenuous, as is the contention that it would have been irresponsible to hold a federal vote in Burnaby while B.C. is holding its electoral reform referendum.

Beggars – or, in this case, third- and fourth-party leaders – cannot be choosers, but there is no rule that stipulates a rookie leader should be politically suicidal.

The unavailability of a reasonably safe seat and a reluctance to ask a sitting MP to step down were two reasons why Clark waited almost two years – taking a pass on half-a-dozen byelections over that period – before he re-entered the Commons in 2000. Those same reasons apply to Singh.

And if Trudeau felt it was important to put some distance between B.C.’s mail-in vote that ends on Nov. 30 and a federal byelection, he could have selected a date later in December. In other circumstances, one might accuse the prime minister of trying to keep down a rival for fear of empowering him in the lead-up to the general election.

But Singh’s brief honeymoon is long behind him and many New Democrats have soured on his leadership. There is no guarantee a debut in the House of Commons would improve matters. There is also no guarantee he will do well in the race for the Burnaby South seat.

A byelection defeat could sound the death knell of Singh’s leadership. The last thing the Liberals want is for the NDP to find a potentially more effective leader before next fallís campaign.

The extent to which they are willing to go to achieve that end speaks to fear of another kind.

In 2015, Trudeau handily defeated two rivals – Stephen Harper and Thomas Mulcair – who to this day continue to be seen as more formidable than either of their successors and/or any of the aspirants who ran for their jobs.

And yet it seems the prime minister feels he will need all the help he can get – starting with a weak NDP leader – to keep the Conservatives at bay.

Trudeauís byelection move has the New Democrats crying foul. It should give pause to those among Liberal supporters who are not rabid partisans.

Every prime minister I covered came to the office promising to stick to the high road.

Instead, when it came to using prime ministerial powers for partisan advantage, each and every one of them ended up pushing the envelope a little further. Trudeau is turning out to be no exception.

Twitter: @ChantalHbert
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services