Jagmeet Singh’s Charm Offensive

His nice words don’t quite square with nasty realities

✎  Wayne K. Spear | October 5, 2017 ◈ Politics

THE HEADLINES trumpeting Jagmeet Singh’s NDP leadership win each conformed to one of two themes. Either his victory as a “non-white” candidate was unprecedented, or it could be credited to the very-much-precedented appeal of charisma, GQ-worthy style, and handsomeness. The American papers in particular didn’t fail to notice that another Trudeau had arrived on the scene, ending the Prime Minister’s cornering of the charm market. Nor does the ringing of familiar bells end there. Kesh and kara aside, the new NDP leader is political boilerplate: a lawyer from Scarborough who speaks (cautiously) in both official languages and who celebrates Canada’s diversity and wholesomeness in, no doubt, focused-group-tested terms.

Jagmeet SinghCanada’s newest GQ leader

But, of course, he isn’t just another politician. He’s Sikh, and he is now leader of a federal political party, and as such he’s nullified a barrier to political office we should be glad to see nullified. The Charisma War can now begin, and how discouraging this prospect must be for the Conservative leader, Mr. Scheer, whose New York Times headline said: “Canada’s Conservatives Choose Andrew Scheer as Their New Leader.” In the meantime we all know how these battles are going to be fought, and that is with the ammunition of buttery words shot at the hardworking families of the middle class. Gone are the days when a political party might actually have something to fight for or about, such as proletariat revolution or tooth-and-claw capitalism. It’s three parties for the middle class, comrade. So who do you think has the nicest suit?

There are still things in this world for which and over which people fight and kill and die. The recent history of the Indian and Pakistan Punjab, birthplace of Jagmeet Singh’s parents, comes to mind. Since the British withdrawal from the region in the 1940s, the Punjab and Kashmir regions have been among the world’s most dangerous and volatile. The sectarian hatreds of two nuclear states and their diverse internal populations have engendered horrific violence, and while it may be true that none of this registers with the average Canadian, some of the old-world baggage has found its way to places like Brampton and Surrey and Vancouver. Canadians ought to care about that, more than they do.

There was a time when obscure causes like an independent Sikh state of Khalistan (obscure from a Canadian perspective) made headlines from Halifax to Vancouver. On June 23, 1985, Sikh terrorists associated with Babbar Khalsa put a bomb on Air India Flight 182 as well as on a plane bound for Japan—the latter detonated at the Japanese airport, killing the baggage handlers—one member of Babbar Khalsa having vowed that “we will not rest” until they had killed 50,000 Hindus. There are Sikh nationalists who to this day celebrate as a martyr the man behind this crime, the largest-ever mass murder of Canadian citizens, Talwinder Singh Babbar.

What has this to do with Jagmeet Singh? Nothing, really. But at the prospect of questions about Khalistan and Sikh extremism and the “martyrdom” of Talwinder Singh Babbar, the charming bespoke Jagmeet Singh fade into the curtains to be replaced by a cagey and defensive and lawyerly Jagmeet Singh? Why does he demand that all questions along these lines be submitted in advance and all transcriptions of his answers vetted prior to publication? Probably all the reasons one asks for these things: to prepare an answer, to avoid surprises, to make the best possible impression.

Screen Shot 2017-10-05 at 10.52.32 AMA headline from Sikh Siyasat News

To his credit, Jagmeet Singh appeared on the October 2nd episode of Power and Politics despite Terry Milewski’s refusal to grant Singh’s terms. There, Milewski asked, “Do you think that some Canadian Sikhs go too far when they honour Talwinder Singh Babbar as a martyr of the Sikh nation?” Singh argued, falsely in my view, that Sikhs and Hindus co-exist “in peace and harmony, and we need to celebrate that.” (I ask you: how on earth can you square this idea with the Flight 182 bombing?) Pressed further, he said:

So, it is so unacceptable that violence that was committed—the heinous massacre that was committed—is something that Sikhs, Muslim, Hindus all denounced, the violence as perpetrated against innocent Canadian lives, is something we all denounce. I regularly denounce it on the anniversary. It’s something that we all collectively are opposed to. There is no question about this, that innocent lives were killed and it is completely unacceptable and needs to be denounced as a terrorist act.

He never answered the question, “Do you think that some Canadian Sikhs go too far when they honour Talwinder Singh Babbar as a martyr of the Sikh nation?” But he did answer two questions that Terry Milewski didn’t ask. Again I am reminded of Trudeau.

The Ontario Liberals Did Not Win: The Other Parties Lost

GNM
EARLIER THIS WEEK, on CTV news, I predicted that two political parties would be looking for new leaders if the Ontario Liberals prevailed. Election day had yet to expire when Tim Hudak announced he would be stepping down, fulfilling a half of my proposition.

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Chuck Strahl, Stephen Harper and the Oily Politics of Contempt

Stephen-Harper-campaigning-in-2004

FOR FAR LONGER than it was defensible to do so, the rabble and occupy elements of the opposition to Prime Minister Stephen Harper maintained the paranoid trope of an extreme and hidden agenda, whose Reform agents awaited the propitious moment to conquer the duped public by stealth. Eight years into the Harper Conservative era, it arrives as a historical irony – as well as a rebuke to an over laboured conspiracy – that the foremost reason to oppose Stephen Harper was also the reason many Canadians had tired of the Liberal Party of Canada. And that reason was the open contempt of the public shown by its government, a contempt whose exercise and underlying agenda was anything but hidden.

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Good fortune and Bob Rae weren’t always on the best of terms

FEDERAL LIBERAL LEADER Bob Rae’s citation of William Shakespeare was an indirect invocation also of a commonplace political euphemism — the putting aside of personal ambition “to spend more time with the family.” Announcing his decision yesterday not to run for permanent leadership, he produced the closing lines of Sonnet 25:

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How J.S. Woodsworth opposed the war and saved capitalism

J. S. Woodsworth

ONE MIGHT HAVE anticipated, with all the recent talk of conscience rights, that J.S. Woodsworth would soon enough become a hash tag. But not as the object of a slander. The man who once led the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation was nothing if not conscience driven. His lifelong, principled commitments to the Social Gospel, socialism and pacifism were amply rewarded — both by the Methodist church and the nation which he dutifully served — with accusations of sedition, criminal charges, harassment and imprisonment. Whatever one’s politics, one could do worse than to emulate the spine of this man.

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If Mulcair can’t hold the NDP’s gains, the merger whispers will begin

The rise of Thomas Mulcair brings Canada one step closer to a settling of its parliamentary landscape. This former Quebec Liberal, whose one-time boss was a former Progressive Conservative, will henceforth parry with the Liberal interim leader — a former NDPer — and the Conservative Prime Minister, previously of the Canadian Alliance, which not long ago went by the name of the Reform Party.

The preceding highlights the fluid, and in some cases opportunistic, character of recent Canadian politics. Mulcair’s candidacy invoked the familiar weighing of purity against pragmatism, a debate concerning whether one should advance the candidate who can win, rather than the candidate who is authentic. Given that the victor has among his assets deep-pocketed campaign contributors and experience in Quebec and a notoriously combative style, it appears pragmatism has won this time around. Refusing to cut a self-serving deal, Nathan Cullen has won the war of principle by foregoing what the author and politician Nicholas Flood Davin termed, in his 1876 satire The Fair Grit, the “buncombe struggle” — in which contestants “out-vie each other first in professions of purity, and then out-do each other, as far as it is possible, in acts of corruption.” Under Davin’s formulation, “In Opposition all is virtue; in power all the reverse.”

In a slightly modified form this principle, long familiar on the Social-Democrat left, demands of virtue and authenticity the rejection of compromise for the purpose of achieving political power. Considered from the perspective of expedience, however, Mulcair is impressive: a serial first-placer, he is chronologically second only to Phil Edmonston on the list of winning Quebec NDP candidates. (If one puts aside by-elections, Mulcair becomes the first NDP candidate to win a Quebec seat in a general federal election.) Regarding the second criterion, authenticity, there are skeptics and detractors. Judy Rebick asserts that “the NDP has elected an old-style patriarchal politician [who is] more of a liberal than a social democrat and who will move the party to the right, especially on international issues including free trade and Israel, two issues at the centre of Harper’s agenda.” As John Ivison notices, [“Thomas Mulcair’s challenge is to prove he is no political opportunist”] and Rebick discloses, Mulcair must now navigate a sea roughened not only by external challenges, but by internal rivalries and hostilities.

But let’s return to the theme of fluidity. I was in the East Block office of Senator Di Nino, and in the course of our conversation he produced a framed copy of the December 2003 voting card sealing the Progressive Conservative – Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance merger, signed by all involved. The Senator’s recollections made me mindful of how far, and in such short time, the Reform Party came from being an amateurish western grievance club (my wording, not his) to forming the Government of Canada. Along the way, the movement got a makeover — think Preston Manning — and learned to speak in a language comprehensible east of Winnipeg. In other words, another case of purity yielding somewhat to pragmatism, to the inevitable disappointment of some. Imagine where conservatives would be today, if their representation was parceled amongst two or three inter-warring parties.

Observers have been tempted to recommend a similar effort on the left, thereby forging a united opposition to the Conservatives. While there are no indications that a discussion along these lines has occurred, or even will occur, the NDP shall now be forced to divert precious resources into a fight with the Liberals for dominance. Bob Rae’s provincial record, brought fresh to the mind in recent attack ads, arguably makes him appear “more NDP” than the NDP. In any case, you must have noticed how similar is the diction of Mr. Rae to that of the Occupy movement, which is a tactical inconvenience if you are Mr. Mulcair. Should both remain long in leadership, there will hardly be an environmental niche sufficient to nourish them: something must give way. The New Democrats are well positioned to seize the Liberal party’s traditional ideological niche, just as they’ve occupied their traditional seats in Quebec. Mulcair’s chief problem is that the Liberal Party of Canada will soon sort out its internal affairs, and once it has done so it will be back to reclaim its lost territories. The party is too well-monied, too organized, and too much a feature of Canada’s political establishment to be kept down for long. In the short time he has, the NDP leader must apply his attention, not to defeating Harper, but to the long-term goal of holding recent and tenuous gains which the Grits are certain to contest.

If this turns out to be a draining and inconclusive battle, the topic of merger will arise. The ideologically pure will of course have none of it; nonetheless, there are reasons to suspect the years ahead will not be kind to these two parties. In his article, “A budget, a leadership race — and a nation split up the middle,” Andrew Coyne identifies the natural resource industry, demographics, and Quebec separatism as the three “fault lines” of current Canadian politics. Each of these three will doubtless present itself politically as a zero-sum prospect, posing winners against losers and fracturing the country more deeply along regional lines.

To get at the spoils, the parties have positioned themselves accordingly. An intriguing insight of Coyne’s piece is the unpredictable ways in which the politics of regionalism may intersect with the politics of resource extraction and demographics and fiscal federalism. As the loyal opposition, the NDP has an opportunity and a responsibility to take bold stands on these issues. Yet if Coyne is correct, the deepest fault lines are going to run straight through the NDP (and until recently, Liberal) territories. Quebec, for instance, has proven itself to be an especially fickle fair-weather friend. Looking ahead through Coyne’s lens, the political landscape is as fluid as it appears in the backward glance at the beginning of this essay. A sort of political climate change is underway. Interesting times are ahead, and one has to wonder if either the New Democrats or the Liberals are preparing.

Remembering Jack Layton: 1950-2011

I WAS INFORMED of the death earlier this morning of Federal New Democratic Party leader, Jack Layton, by Twitter. There, in an uninterrupted chain of entries numbering in the dozens (and perhaps into the hundreds: I gave up counting) were expressions of sorrow. Never have I seen such universalism of sentiment, such spontaneous participation in a mood which appears to have touched everyone, really everyone, down to a person.

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So What If Quebec Separates?

In an astute article of today’s (April 23) National Post, “Liberal remedy to Layton is to look in the mirror,” Kelly McParland writes,

In 21 elections between 1921 and 1993, when the Liberals won it was because of Quebec. They took the overwhelming majority of Quebec seats in every winning campaign, and only once were they popular enough in the rest of the country to have won without Quebec (and even then, in 1935, it would have been iffy). The Liberal party was about keeping Quebec happy; that’s where power lay. It all changed when the Bloc Quebecois came along and stole their meal ticket. Since 1993, when the Liberals win it’s because of Ontario, yet the party has never put the effort into pleasing Ontario that it did into Quebec.

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