For Liberals to win in 2019, NDP has to lose

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NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh at the Ontario Federation of Labour Convention in 2017. Photo: OFL Communications Department/Wikimedia Commons

On December 29, the Liberal Party of Canada nominated Karen Wang to be the candidate of "Team Trudeau" in the long-awaited -- by federal New Democrats -- Burnaby South byelection.

Last August, federal leader Jagmeet Singh decided to run in Burnaby South, when NDP MP Kennedy Stewart announced he would run (successfully) for mayor of Vancouver.

Elected party leader nearly a year earlier, Singh had opted to concentrate on building the party rather than persuading a member elected in 2015 to step down so he could enter Parliament through a byelection.

The Green Party has extended Singh a "party leaders courtesy" by not putting up a candidate.

The Conservatives have nominated Korean speaker Jay Shin in a riding where the party won 27 per cent of the vote in the 2015 general election, against 35 per cent NDP and 34 per cent Liberal. Ex-Conservative Maxime Bernier, founder of the People's Party of Canada, wants a candidate in the race, and his fledging party has created an electoral district association.

While Singh starts favoured to win the riding in the expected February contest, the Liberal candidate represents a serious challenge. In the 2017 provincial election, Karen Wang ran a strong second to Burnaby city councillor Anne Kang of the NDP in the similar Burnaby-Deer Lake constituency.

While Singh was elected provincially in Brampton, Ont., and is a new face in Burnaby South, Wang has lived in the riding for 20 years, where she operates the Angels Playhouse child-care centre.

According to the 2016 census, fully 38.7 per cent of the population in Burnaby South are of Chinese ancestry. Surprisingly, in the 2015 federal election no party fielded a Cantonese- or Mandarin-speaking candidate to contest the newly constituted riding.

The Liberals will now get to test the attractiveness of a Chinese-Canadian candidate in the riding.

At eight per cent, the South-Asian presence should help Singh. Altogether Asian-origin groups represent more than 50 per cent of the riding's population.

The Liberal party strategy has been to delay calling a byelection as long as legally possible. On January 6, in a press conference in the riding, Singh accused the Liberals of disenfranchising the electorate of Burnaby South by leaving them without the basis of democracy: representation from an elected member of Parliament.

The Liberals have clearly been happy to see Singh obliged to travel back and forth across Canada, from Ottawa to Burnaby, through three times zones to acquaint himself with the riding, and taking time away from the voter-rich areas of Ontario, where he could be doing greater damage to Liberal fortunes.

It serves the Liberal cause that Singh is obliged to campaign in his new riding -- presumably twice in 2019 -- rather than waiting to run in Brampton in October where he could count on local forces to assure his election.

Team Trudeau has clearly understood the dynamics of the coming election. The Liberals are in a tight race with the Conservatives. For Trudeau to prevail and form a second consecutive majority government, the NDP must lose seats to Liberals.

The NDP store window policies, pharmacare and child care, are both under study by the Liberals. The Liberals have been pushing a strong family and women-friendly agenda, with their Canada Child Benefit as the main accomplishment.

Federal cheques are being printed to compensate lower-income voters in the Conservative provinces of Ontario, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and New Brunswick for paying new federal carbon taxes -- because the provinces would not sign on to the Liberal environmental plan to have Conservative premiers do the taxing.

NDP insiders were happy to see Singh chosen to affront Justin Trudeau. In the 2015 election, some 17 seats in the 25 ridings with a significant South-Asian population switched from Conservative to Liberal. Thinking of how Singh made the NDP more competitive in those ridings encouraged the NDP braintrust to believe Singh could take seats from Trudeau.

The Singh campaign in Burnaby South will road test the NDP message on making life more affordable for Canadians. The NDP leader will be the only candidate opposing the Trans Mountain pipeline-expansion project, which should attract sizeable anti-pipeline activist support.

For the NDP to win Burnaby South, the Conservatives will have to draw considerable support, the NDP will need dissatisfaction with the Liberals to drive party partisans to the polls, and Singh has to count on voters wanting to see a party leader play a role in Parliament.

Duncan Cameron is president emeritus of and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Photo: OFL Communications Department/Wikimedia Commons

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