Ken Boessenkool: Jagmeet Singh is about to become much more powerful

Any plans for a early election are doomed. In fact, soon the Liberals will be desperate to prevent one.

By: Ken Boessenkool

This isn’t something I’m in the habit of saying — and it surely isn’t something I would have predicted I’d be saying this far into the pandemic — but here goes … Jagmeet Singh is about to become the most powerful politician in Ottawa.

Let’s back up. The pandemic has been rough on everyone, especially governments. But as governments go, the federal Liberals, after initially underestimating the problem and failing to snap shut our borders, sprang into action once the virus started shutting down the economy.

They threw $2,000 dollars a month at anything that moved, or more accurately, anyone who showed the slightest hint of losing their job. It wasn’t perfect, but what made it close was that it went against every instinct of good income support policy that says “verify need” then “trust.” They literally opened a portal that reversed the order and put “trust” far, ahead of “verify need.” It was a program that indiscriminately threw around $2,000 cheques with only the softest of warnings that “someday we’ll check to see if you needed it.” You’d think that kind of indiscriminate spending would have earned the ire of conservatives — but some of us were pushing them to be even more indiscriminate.

The stunning success of the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB being the aforementioned indiscriminate cheques for $2,000 per month) protected the incomes of millions of Canadians, low-income Canadians in particular. Some of those lower income Canadians actually saw their income rise during the pandemic.

Though it was passed through the House of Commons with support from all parties, the success of the CERB should have built up enough good will to translate into an easy majority win for the Liberals in any future election. Proof point? Stephen Harper sailed to a majority in 2011 for his arguably equally impressive handling of the 2008 global financial crisis.

All signs pointed to a Liberal romp in a spring election.

And they got thwacked by their failure to procure timely vaccines.

Political scientists, political strategists and eventually historians will fight about whether this was sheer incompetence, plain bad luck, arrogance, a failure to anticipate national interest, or something else entirely.

But it won’t matter why because the new strains of COVID-19 will prevent the Liberals from calling an election before the summer. And lockdowns will continue in Canada while most of Europe and the U.S. return to normal. By fall, Liberals will be fighting not to have an election.

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They will be looking to do deals.

The path to a Liberal majority is through Quebec, so I would have said six months ago that the Liberals would have looked to do some sleight of hand card tricks with the Bloc as a way to engender support in la belle province. But the recent racist insinuations of the Bloc leader has probably made any friendly overtures toxic to the Liberals’ woke base.

How these Bloc antics play out in Quebec is a subject on which even angels would fear to tread, so I’ll leave that analysis to powers higher than me.

Which leaves the NDP, and their, until now, hapless leader Jagmeet Singh. As Europe returns to their restaurants and Americans to their stadiums, Mr. Singh will need to decide whether still locked down centre-left Canadians would prefer that he extract pounds of progressive flesh, or throw the Liberals out altogether.

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Meanwhile, Conservative leader Erin O’Toole’s life is about to get very boring. Every minute of every day between now and whenever the election comes that he is not talking about the vaccine failures will be a wasted opportunity. O’Toole will, of course, have to prepare a solid plan for governing — including on issues like climate change and childcare. But until the writ drops, his job will be to take each and every opportunity to remind Canadians of Liberal failures. Not that they’ll need reminders as they watch Americans and Europeans return to normal life from their own well-worn couches.

What Singh does with his newfound power is anyone’s guess. He’s shown a proclivity for woke social media stunts, but little else. But within the broader NDP apparatus there are many brilliant people who remember holding Paul Martin over a barrel in return for a bunch of progressive wins and turning that into a historic level of seats — including in Quebec — when Canadians finally decided to throw the Liberals out of office. They were, before Jack Layton’s incredibly sad passing, knocking at the door of forming a national government.

Singh should be turning to them now.

And the rest of us? Hang on to our wallets. Which won’t be hard because we won’t get out much.


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