Even in a year in which Trudeau took corporate subsidies to new heights — especially for oil companies — perhaps the largest investment of Liberal energy went to keeping new NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh away from a Commons seat and unable to directly confront Trudeau over the cost of Canadians’ everyday life.
In early August, Singh — who has been focusing his attacks on the high cost of housing, drug prices and childcare — declared his plan to run in Burnaby South. But, although the seat became vacant in late summer, the Prime Minister has delayed a byelection, leaving it vacant even as, on October 28, he called a byelection for Leeds–Grenville–Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes.
The delay game may be ending. On December 29, local Liberals nominated a candidate in Burnaby South. A byelection call is now expected as soon as this Sunday for a vote on February 11, 2019. Trudeau will have kept the riding unrepresented for almost five months.
But it may be that a simple game of delay wasn’t enough manipulation — that the Liberals had a deeper game afoot: to bait Singh into switching to an assumed byelection on his home turf of Brampton East, then leave him twisting as former Liberal MP Raj Grewal revoked a pledge to vacate the seat.
Prior to becoming Federal Leader, Singh held an Ontario provincial seat substantially overlapping federal Brampton East. In the 2014 provincial election Singh was re-elected on an 11 points margin. In the 2018 Ontario election, the NDP won Brampton East by 13 points.
The Brampton East bait was set in the few hours after a private meeting between Liberal Whip Mark Holland and Grewal on November 21 and before the PM’s public statement that Grewal had quit at about 4:00pm on November 22.
In the day between the private meeting and public statement, two media outlets reported two decisions of the PM about Burnaby South and — as all might presume, anyway — in Brampton East. Both reports were based on unnamed Liberal sources.
The stories reported decisions on issues that had been in play for months: byelection timing and whether there would be a Liberal candidate in Burnaby South. After months of delay on these questions, it seems it was suddenly urgent for the Liberals to publicly settle the issues in the few hours after the Grewal meeting and before the PM announced a vacancy in Brampton East.
The news stories would frame a decision that would be publicly thrust on Singh the next afternoon — whether to stick with Burnaby South or switch to Brampton East.
In the first story, a Liberal source told the Hills Times the “remaining” byelections would be called in January and held in February. An understanding that Brampton East and Burnaby South byelections would be held on the same day would remove NDP strategists’ fears of further delay if Singh switched.
The second story, given to Huffington Post, reported the Liberals would run a candidate against Singh in Burnaby South. In September, a Liberal source had given National Post columnist John Ivison the story that “Liberals say privately they are mulling” the idea of extending so-called leader’s courtesy to Singh by not running a candidate, “but no decision has been taken.”
News that Liberals would indeed run against Singh in Burnaby South would encourage Singh to switch to Brampton East, where he would likely be a shoo-in.
But just a day after the question publicly arose, Singh shut down speculation, saying he’d agreed to seek the seat for Burnaby South and he’d see it through.
Wise decision. As it turned out, Holland somehow never actually got Grewal’s resignation on paper. And then Grewal never actually resigned. If the Liberal media game had baited Singh into switching to Brampton East, it would have put Singh in the embarrassing situation of having to switch back — while Liberals shrugged their shoulders, Grewal blamed addiction and the pundit class giggled.
Is it possible that was exactly how the Liberals hoped their overnight media strategy would play out? Absolutely. All that was required was a couple deniably misleading statements and a couple anonymously-sourced media nudges — not a high price to pay to watch Singh trapped in a media line-of-fire.
And for Liberals it’s much better to keep playing games on the NDP than address the questions about the rising cost everyday life that Singh has vowed to bring to the Commons, once elected. Any day of the week, media strategies for Liberal gain are preferred over policy solutions to Canadians’ pain.