Dress Locally, Secure the Sikh Vote in 2019?


Column / Don Newman

I’m sorry, Andrew Scheer, but apparently, you don’t matter. New Democratic Leader Jagmeet Singh is the man the Trudeau Liberal Government sees as the biggest threat in the next election, 18 months from now.

Singh has been the leader of the federal NDP for only a few months. He does not have—and appears in no hurry to get—a seat in the House of Commons and the higher profile that would come with it. Nevertheless, the move from provincial politics in Ontario to federal politics in Ottawa has already had an impact on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Government. In fact, they appear to be running scared, as two events in February illustrate.

Example A: The federal budget.

The economic plan unveiled by Finance Minister Bill Morneau on February 27th was basically NDP Light. It featured spending for gender equity, sexual harassment and ways to promote more women at all levels of the work place.

It had more spending for indigenous Canadians and a variety of other programs that usually warm NDP political hearts. It even had the beginning of what could be pharmacare. It was more a social policy document than an economic one. There was no promise of tax cuts or deficit reduction to counter the criticisms Conservatives traditionally make of Liberal budgets.

Example B: The Prime Minister’s recent travel.

The Prime Minister recently spent a week in India. Not only did he take his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, with him, he took his three children, Xavier, Ella Grace and Hadrien, as well. Perhaps that should have been the tip-off that there was going to be more to this trip than the advertised trade negotiations, meetings with business leaders and economic deal-making.

Instead, much of the trip turned out to be the Trudeau family tour of India’s famous landmarks, historic sites and shrines. Included in the latter category was the Golden Temple in Amritsar, a Sikh holy place and the scene of a raid by the Indian government to remove Sikh separatists in 1984. Four months later, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards.

Not only did the Trudeaus have this ambitious sightseeing agenda, much of the time they wore traditional Indian clothing as they toured. That opened them to much derision in both Canada, and India, where the outfits were slammed as Bollywood-themed pandering. The Prime Minister finally had a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the final day of the trip.

But who wasn’t laughing? Who was enjoying the pictures? And who will get a chance to see them again in the fall of 2019 in the federal election campaign? Voters in the Ontario suburbs of Brampton and Mississauga, north and west of Toronto, and in Surrey and Richmond, just south of Vancouver.

All of the ridings in those two areas have large Indo-Canadian populations. In fact, it is the votes of those electors that decide who goes to Ottawa. Most of them won’t think the Trudeaus looked funny.

Would the Liberals and the Prime Minister have gone to so much trouble without Mr. Singh leading the NDP? If you ask them they say yes, but it is a matter of conjecture.

Singh is a Sikh who represented a Brampton riding in the Ontario Legislature, and that is where he will run federally in 2019. In the 2015 election, the Liberals captured virtually all of those riding as they rode from third place to first and formed a majority government. An NDP leader from the Sikh community running there, and with coattails in the surrounding ridings, could spell disaster to their hopes for another majority government and perhaps any Liberal Government at all.

And despite the number of Sikhs in the Trudeau cabinet and the Liberal caucus, an NDP leader from the community could wreak havoc with a Liberal majority.

This doesn’t mean that the NDP will likely be the government after the next election. At the moment that seems a remote possibility. In fact, it raises the possibility that Mr. Scheer and the Conservatives could in fact become the government. Conservative support is relatively consistent across the country. They have their best electoral results when a strong NDP siphons off Liberal support.

Which is why in February, the Trudeau government was moving to try and make sure that won’t happen.

Don Newman is Senior Counsel at Navigator Limited and Ensight Canada, Chair of Canada 2020 and a lifetime member of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery. dnewman@navltd.com