Singh’s strong de­bate per­for­mance could help Scheer the most

The Peterborough Examiner - - OPINION - Thomas Walkom

In a round­about way, Con­ser­va­tive An­drew Scheer ben­e­fited most from Mon­day’s lead­ers’ de­bate.

He did so not be­cause he per­formed par­tic­u­larly well, but be­cause New Demo­crat Jag­meet Singh did.

We shall see whether Singh’s near mirac­u­lous po­lit­i­cal res­ur­rec­tion is enough to sal­vage any seats for the strug­gling NDP. It may be too late for that.

But in some rid­ings, par­tic­u­larly in On­tario, a par­tial NDP re­cov­ery could split the so-called pro­gres­sive vote just enough to let Scheer’s Con­ser­va­tives skate up the mid­dle and win what is shap­ing up to be an ex­tremely close elec­tion.

In any case, Singh has man­aged through­out this cam­paign to con­found his crit­ics both inside and out­side the NDP.

With one ex­cep­tion — his han­dling of the con­tro­versy sur­round­ing a Que­bec law that dis­crim­i­nates against those who are openly re­li­gious — he has man­aged to avoid po­lit­i­cal pit­falls.

Most of the time, he has dealt with the tricky is­sues of race and reli­gion grace­fully, re­mind­ing vot­ers that as a tur­ban­wear­ing Sikh he has ex­pe­ri­enced racism first-hand, yet do­ing so with­out sound­ing bit­ter.

His some­what be­mused re­ac­tion to a voter who sug­gested that he cut off his tur­ban in or­der to look more “Cana­dian” was par­tic­u­larly adroit. He didn’t get mad. He just said that Cana­di­ans can look like a lot of things.

His dis­missal of the cli­mate-change poli­cies of Scheer and Lib­eral Leader Justin Trudeau as a choice be­tween “Mr. De­lay and Mr. Deny” had an old­fash­ioned ring to it (I was re­minded of for­mer NDP leader Ed Broad­bent’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the Lib­er­als and Con­ser­va­tives as “the Bobb­sey Twins of Bay Street.”)

But Singh de­liv­ered the line with aplomb. And it made the point.

The only time he was caught flat-footed oc­curred af­ter the de­bate proper in a scrum with re­porters. That’s when he be­came en­tan­gled again in the in­tri­ca­cies of the law known in Que­bec as Bill 21.

Bill 21, which pre­vents pub­lic of­fi­cials in po­si­tions of author­ity from openly wear­ing re­li­gious sym­bols, is bla­tantly dis­crim­i­na­tory. It is aimed at those, in­clud­ing some Mus­lims, Jews and Sikhs, who view the wear­ing of such sym­bols as re­li­gious obli­ga­tions.

But it is also ex­tremely pop­u­lar in Que­bec. As a re­sult, the fed­eral lead­ers, all of whom are seek­ing votes in Que­bec, have stepped gin­gerly around it.

Un­til Mon­day, Singh’s po­si­tion was that while he dis­ap­proved of Bill 21, he would not chal­lenge it in court if he be­came prime min­is­ter. That is also Scheer’s po­si­tion.

Dur­ing Mon­day’s post­de­bate scrum, Singh ap­peared to move to­ward Trudeau’s view, say­ing that a prime min­is­ter would be obliged to re­view any ju­di­cial chal­lenge — in­clud­ing one aimed at Bill 21 — that came be­fore the Supreme Court.

Then he ap­peared to back­track. In the end, it wasn’t clear where he stood.

If Singh is lucky, most vot­ers will tune out of the de­tailed de­bate over Bill 21. If Singh is very lucky, the dam­age to the NDP pre­dicted by many an­a­lysts will be lim­ited to Que­bec (where the party is ex­pected to be dec­i­mated) and New Democrats will hang onto, or even in­crease, the num­ber of seats they hold in On­tario and British Columbia.

If, how­ever, Singh is just a lit­tle bit lucky and man­ages to merely split the non-Con­ser­va­tive vote in key rid­ings, An­drew Scheer could be­come prime min­is­ter.

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