The truest test of Singh’s mettle does not lie in Quebec. Singh’s greatest test for 2019 will be helping his old colleagues in their 2018 Ontario election bid.
The new kid on the national block, former Deputy Leader of the Ontario NDP and MPP Jagmeet Singh, has recently swung from provincial to federal NDP politics. He’s settling into the new role as leader of Canada’s NDP, having recently tendered his resignation as MPP for Bramble—Gore Malton. Without a seat in the House of Commons, Singh has plans for a cross-country tour to introduce himself to Canadians, with weekly Wednesday stops in Ottawa to meet with his Parliamentary colleagues.
Although, like any new leader – he’s untested. The readiness test of Justin Trudeau was a key focal point (and soundbite) of the last federal campaign.
Readiness was perhaps a proxy for Stephen Harper to make increased age into a virtue for him and Mulcair, possibly as a tactic to squeeze out Trudeau. It clearly backfired. It merely activated some ageist tendencies in his existing base.
Admittedly for the average, moderate voter, “Is he ready?” was still a lingering question on the doorstep during the campaign. Trudeau had to be relentless in his positive message, touring, and ads.
Last week, there were two federal by-elections, including a region of supposed strength for the NDP: Québec. In Lac-Saint-Jean, former Conservative Minister and Quebec political chieftain Denis Lebel resigned his seat. The Conservatives were hoping to hold onto it, while the NDP were hoping to show how bilingual and strong their new leader was. The Bloc Québécois was hoping to regain the seat they held up until Lebel took it.
They all faced an upset in watching it shift over to the governing Liberals who are polling highly in the province.
Singh campaigned in the riding, and was hoping it would show new energy in his party. The NDP placed fourth.
While it may be too early to read the result of week’s by-election in Lac-Saint-Jean as a bad omen for Singh’s tenure, it certainly wasn’t a great start. There has been a continued decline of seats for the NDP in the province since Jack Layton’s Orange wave in 2011.
Frankly, the truest test of Singh’s mettle does not lie in Quebec. Singh’s greatest test for 2019 will be helping his old colleagues in their 2018 Ontario election bid and it hinges on whether he can deliver ‘905’ ridings there. In particular his home regions of Scarborough, Brampton, and Mississauga.
Premier Horwath would put the winds in his sails. He may have seen his old boss as in his way to winning – as somehow he didn’t see a path to getting himself to the Premier’s office – yet better results for the Ontario NDP would set a narrative of the federal NDP being ready for primetime.
Also last week, Singh and Horwath met to do a chummy photo-op and commit to working together to beat incumbent Premier Kathleen Wynne in the next provincial election.
In the last provincial Ontario election, newly minted federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau campaigned side-by-side with Wynne and the Ontario Liberals, despite no official connection between the parties. That tie served him well a year later in 2015.
Additionally, Kathleen Wynne’s formidable campaigning skills and a deep Liberal bench in the GTA mean that the Ontario Liberals can’t yet be counted out.
It is clear that in battleground Mississauga-Brampton ridings, the real test has begun.
This won’t be an easy road for Singh and the Ontario NDP, however. Ontario PC Leader Patrick Brown will emphasize his friendship with Narendra Modi as well as a newfound embracing of diversity within his party.
Beyond outreach to the Hindu community, he has been aggressively courting the Tamil community and has been in Gurdwaras across the region. These are lessons that may also be coming from Alykhan Velshi, Brown’s Chief of Staff.
Velshi cut his political teeth as Director of Communications and Senior Special Assistant to Jason Kenney in his time as Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and Canadian Identity as well as his role as Minister of Citizenship and Immigration. This launched him into the Prime Minister’s Office by 2011 as Director of Planning.
Brown sees that Kenney-esque multicultural outreach approach as his secret weapon to pulling the vote back to the Conservative fold. On the other hand, battleground suburban GTA swung during the last federal election from the Conservatives to the Liberals. Getting them back provincially is a linchpin in the PC strategy.
The only thing that could counteract that: Jagmeet Singh using his time in the non-elected wilderness to try to bring people into the NDP fold. While Trudeau and Scheer are stuck in the parliamentary pageantry of Question Period, Singh can devote his entire schedule to building a formidable grassroots apparatus. He has already spent time campaigning provincially in BC during his leadership campaign. This is in his wheelhouse and is his home turf.
If Singh can show early Ontario results, he can carry that momentum to improve the federal NDP fortunes. A strong showing in Ontario next year could translate into 2019 momentum – just as it did for the Liberals. He has his shot lined up, although pulling it off will require hope and hard work.
Shane Mackenzie is an Associate Consultant with Ensight, a government relations and public affairs firm. He previously worked with a Liberal Member of Parliament and before that at the Liberal Party of Canada’s headquarters, while also being an active local and digital campaigner municipally, provincially, and federally for over 5 years.
Follow Shane on Twitter: @ShaneMackenzie_