Jagmeet Singh addressing supporters in Vancouver a month after his leadership win
At Maclean’s, Evan Solomon has a column criticizing Jagmeet Singh for his decision not to run for Parliament until the next scheduled general election. Solomon argues that the decision is likely not in Singh’s or the NDP’s best interest, and may even be against the best interests of Canadian democracy itself. This argument is not, in my view, particularly successful, and Solomon’s hyperbolic conclusions about “fundamental contempt for Parliament” are unwarranted.
Solomon introduces his critique by clarifying his view of what is at stake in the decision not to run until 2019. According to Solomon, two years without a seat means “two years without holding the Prime Minister to account in question period”, and “without personally working on key legislation like the legalization of pot, the budget, [and] sending Canadian troops into harm’s way”.
This passage should already give readers pause. The budget and the marijuana bill are government bills; the leader of the NDP would not personally work on those bills regardless of whether he has a seat in the Commons. Decisions on “sending Canadian troops into harm’s way” do not normally involve opposition MPs either; those decisions rest with the government, not Parliament. With those concerns laid to rest, we’re left with worries about “two years without holding the Prime Minister to account in question period”. But if the implication is that the Prime Minister will not be held to account in question period for two years, that is clearly false. The NDP has many experienced MPs in Ottawa who are capable of holding the Prime Minister to account in question period. So Solomon must mean merely that Jagmeet Singh will not personally hold the Prime Minister to account in question period. Perhaps that is less than ideal. But it is not clear to me that it ought to “elicit gasps”, as Solomon apparently thinks it should. On balance, given the circumstances, it may even be wise.
Some commentators, Solomon points out, have concluded from Thomas Mulcair’s failure in the last election to consolidate the NDP’s gains from 2011 that Parliament is a waste of time. He rightly notes that this is a weak conclusion. Yes, Mulcair was a strong performer in question period, and yes, he lost the election very badly. It does not follow that his performance in Parliament didn’t do him any good. There are other variables to consider; overall, Solomon suggests that Mulcair benefited from the time he spent in the Commons but was sunk by a poor campaign.
Solomon is less effective in responding to the argument that there is precedent for leaders enjoying electoral success without entering Parliament immediately. As some of Singh’s supporters point out, Alexa McDonough and Jack Layton were not elected to the House of Commons until eighteen months after winning the party leadership. Tommy Douglas waited nearly as long, although this was only partly voluntary — having been elected to the leadership in August 1961, he ran for but failed to win a seat in the June 1962 general election; he would eventually enter Parliament after winning a by-election in late October of that year). These precedents should give only cold comfort, Solomon argues. After all, none ending up anywhere near forming government. Even Layton, who came closest, took seven years to achieve his remarkable breakthrough — a breakthrough which, in any event, turned out to be ephemeral.
I think this response is based on an uncharitable interpretation of what precedent is meant to show. As I read it, precedent is cited merely to show that it is neither necessary nor sufficient for a leader to enter Parliament immediately to enjoy electoral success; after all, there have been relatively successful leaders who did not already have a seat (or immediately go on to get one), and unsuccessful leaders who did already have a seat (or immediately went on to get one). Not having a seat is not an insuperable liability, and under certain circumstances, not being tied to a seat may be an advantage. Solomon, however, seems to be interpreting the argument to mean that not having a seat is some kind of silver bullet. His point that Layton struggled to achieve any significant gains for his party is effective against the latter interpretation but not the former — unless he can show that Layton and the rest would have struggled less or won bigger if they had entered Parliament without delay. Because he makes no attempt to do this, his argument can be dismissed.
Solomon then addresses a supposed parallel between Singh and Trudeau. After becoming the leader of the Liberal Party, Trudeau’s attendance record in the House suffered as he prioritized profile- and party-building activities outside Ottawa, yet he secured a decisive victory in 2015 and record high approval ratings. But this parallel quickly breaks down, Solomon argues, because Trudeau had already proven himself by winning a seat in Parliament; this “showed he was ready to fight to win his own place in politics.” Does this really set Trudeau apart from Singh, though? The implication that Singh has not demonstrated that he’s ready to fight to win his own place in politics is frankly laughable given his background in provincial politics.
As the column wraps up, things get a little weird. Solomon quotes pollster Frank Graves noting “the profound difference between choosing not to spend more time in the House and not being in the House because you aren’t a member.” The latter, we’re supposed to believe, is much worse. But a few paragraphs later, Solomon warns that Singh is opening himself to the kind of attack Layton levelled against Michael Ignatieff in 2011: “You know, most Canadians, if they don’t show up for work, they don’t get a promotion.” It was a good line, but Solomon is surely overreaching when he suggests that it was a killing blow for Ignatieff’s career. More seriously, however, he seems to be contradicting the point that the quote from Graves was meant to support. The problem that Layton was calling attention to in the 2011 debate was Ignatieff’s failure to show up in the House of Commons, given that he was a member of that House. Had Ignatieff not been a member of the House of Commons, he could hardly have been criticized for not attending. When he’s quoting Graves, Solomon thinks it’s basically OK not to show up in the House as long as you’re an MP. But that’s exactly the behaviour that exposed Ignatieff to Layton’s attack, and Solomon also thinks that Ignatieff thereby committed political suicide. I’m not sure how to resolve this apparent contradiction in Solomon’s column.