Singh does not need a seat in Commons: Watt

Singh does not need a seat in Commons: Watt

Jaime Watt

New NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh does not need a seat in the House of Commons.

There was a time when the Commons was both the symbolic and functional home of Canadian politics, but it matters less today than it ever has before.

These days, proposed legislation is introduced at photo-ops that are both televised and streamed and instantly made available on voters’ social media accounts.

In Ottawa and in the provinces, legislatures have become home to drive-by smears and gotcha politics; places where the behaviour of members, on each sitting day, diminishes respect for both the institutions and the members themselves.

Singh has been leader of the New Democratic Party since Oct. 1. Since then, he has not indicated any plans to run for a seat in Parliament before the next federal election, which won’t take place for another two years.

You may ask whether this is a good strategy for a new, relatively unknown leader who needs to introduce himself to Canadians, become relevant and make a substantive policy impact.

In fact, staying out of the House of Commons will help.

Former NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair was lauded as an excellent orator and the most prosecutorial and effective opposition leader in Parliament in a generation.

In the end, this had very little effect on the 2015 election results because the political arena has effectively moved outside of traditional, official legislative settings.

The election of U.S. President Donald Trump is emblematic of this. Unlike former presidential hopefuls, Trump garnered support on Twitter, at town hall meetings that resembled rock concerts, and, of course, on the cable news circuit.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, too, has perfected the art of playing politics outside of the House of Commons.

Rather than showing up for Question Period, Trudeau answers questions on the shores of the Gaspé, greets factory workers in London or meets everyday Canadians at an event on Vancouver Island. The Prime Minister and his team know well that these opportunities appeal to his base and network of millennial voters.

In a competitive media landscape, the suppertime news matters less today than ever, and the 30-second news clip from Question Period buried in that newscast has little significance.

Selfie opportunities, viral moments and authentic human experiences are more captivating and better suited for a generation that is increasingly distracted and uninterested in the everyday workings of government.

Trudeau’s tears over Gord Downie’s death, his photobombing weddings, and his wearing silly socks to meetings with world leaders appeal to his voters and also attract the attention of others.

Singh knows this kind of thing works. That’s why he doesn’t want to be tied down by having a seat in the House of Commons.

Singh can travel the country on his time and by his own rules. This opens the door to more fundraising and important time with regional media outlets. And he’ll have time to focus energy on attracting star candidates to improve the NDP’s odds in 2019.

In that campaign, Singh will find himself fighting two very organized opponents. Both the Liberals and the Conservatives have a vast network of disciplined volunteers, fundraisers and strategists. The NDP ground game is far behind. To succeed, Singh will need to spend time diligently strengthening this capacity.

And he will need money. Lots and lots of money. Much of the money he raised during his leadership campaign came from the 905 area around Toronto. But a federal election campaign is very different from a leadership contest and to be successful, Singh will have to raise money from all corners of our country.

And there’s one more crucial thing to consider: there are risks to Singh running in any of the by-elections next month to fill four vacant House of Commons seats. Only one — in Scarborough-Agincourt — is in Ontario, Singh’s home province, and a riding where he spent his formative years. The seat was left vacant by the death of Liberal MP Arnold Chan, whose wife, Jean Yip, is now the Liberal candidate and favoured to win.

If Singh were to run in a byelection and lose, his party’s chances in 2019 would be materially compromised.

It’s becoming increasingly apparent that the risks of running are far greater than the rewards.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.

( As published in The Toronto Star on Sunday, November 19, 2017)