Let’s take a closer look at this controversy.
The Liberals aren’t obligated to call a byelection in the B.C. riding. Trudeau has 180 days to fill it – and Burnaby South has only been vacant since September, when NDP MP Kennedy Stewart stepped down to run in the Vancouver mayoral election (which he won).
At the same time, there are four vacant seats in the House of Commons. Trudeau only called a byelection for one Ontario riding, Leeds-Grenville-Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes. It’s been without a sitting member since Conservative MP Gord Brown unexpectedly passed away in May.
While it’s true most of our prime ministers have called previous byelections at roughly the same time, there’s no rule in Canadian politics that mandates this practice. Hence, Trudeau has every right to hold off until March 2019.
But there’s a reason why the Liberal government shouldn’t be doing this. Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has announced he’ll run for the vacant seat in Burnaby South.
Does this mean the federal Liberals are scared of Singh?
The New Democrats might try to spin this message for a spell, but it’s completely false. CBC’s Oct. 21 poll tracker found that only 18 to 20 per cent of respondents have a positive impression of Singh. Even worse, only seven per cent thought he would be the best choice for prime minister.
Meanwhile, the NDP is sitting at 20 per cent of the popular vote in an Ipsos poll conducted between Oct. 5 and 9. Under Singh’s leadership, the party has been averaging a meagre 15 to 18 per cent since he took the reins in October 2017.
If Singh and the NDP likely aren’t going to serve as a political threat for the 2019 federal election, then what’s the point of holding off on the byelection?
Strategy, my friends.
The Liberals and NDP traditionally vie for the same centre-left vote. The former has historically done better than the latter in federal elections, but the latter’s 103 seats in the 2011 election means they can no longer be ignored.
The federal government has also dropped significantly in popular support. The above Ipsos poll showed the Liberals at 36 per cent, and Andrew Scheer and the Tories at 35 per cent. That’s extremely close and means every vote could potentially count next year.
Hence, it’s politically advantageous for the Liberals to keep the Singh-led NDP out of sight, and out of mind, for as long as possible to shore up the progressive vote once more. The easiest way to accomplish this is to limit Singh’s public exposure.
Since a byelection doesn’t have to be held for six months, the Liberals can legitimately keep the NDP leader out of the corridors of power for an extended period. This means he can’t have a seat or ask questions in Parliament, maintain an office on the Hill, hold regular media scrums, have continuous access to the press corps, and see his face plastered on TV virtually every night.
The Liberals will get, and are getting, some flak for their decision, but so what?
They have to work with their colleagues but they don’t have to help out their opponents.
While the third-largest party in Ottawa is complaining about this situation – NDP MP Peter Julien told Burnaby Now’s Kelvin Gawley on Oct. 28, “It’s unprecedented and very petty and manipulative” – it’s no skin off the government’s back.
That’s why Trudeau and the Liberals are taking their sweet time in calling a byelection in Burnaby South. Don’t be surprised if they wait until the very last possible day, either.
All’s fair in love and war … and politics, too.
Troy Media columnist and political commentator Michael Taube was a speechwriter for former prime minister Stephen Harper.