Opinion: Risky TV appearance pays off for Singh

The sound coming out of the NDP’s backrooms on Monday morning was that of a collective sigh of relief.

On the weekend, Jagmeet Singh rolled the dice and made his maiden appearance on Quebec’s much-watched but somewhat high-risk talk show Tout le monde en parle (TLMEP).

Outside of election debates, opportunities for an out-of-province federal leader to reach a francophone audience as large as that of TLMEP are virtually non-existent. Because of the size of that audience, appearances on the show tend to be of the make-or-break variety.

For many Quebec viewers, it was a first opportunity to watch Thomas Mulcair’s successor in action. That turned out to be true in more ways than one.

Over the course of 15 minutes, the NDP leader discussed his sartorial choices and the colour of his turban.

There were clips of his leadership campaign encounter with a demonstrator as well as of his marriage proposal.

He was asked to reconcile the place of religion and the vestments associated with one’s faith with the insistence of a majority of Quebecers on a secular political sphere. He was quizzed on the prime minister’s recent travails in India and on the pipeline issue.

In the column, he devotes to every TLMEP instalment, Le Soleil’s TV critic Richard Therrien awarded Singh this week’s star for most interesting interview.

That may not translate into the bump in the polls the NDP is desperately hoping for as it contemplates a tough byelection contest in Mulcair’s Outremont riding later this year, but from a Quebec perspective, it was the best night of Singh’s leadership to date.

It may also have been the first time many Quebecers caught more than a glimpse of a Sikh politician.

In contrast with Ontario and B.C., Quebec is not home to a large Sikh community and none of its members is active on the provincial or federal scenes.

Indeed, until a few weeks ago, the Quebec’s election authorities still required candidates for provincial office to submit official photographs that featured no religious headwear.

It is possible that the notion that the leader of one of Canada’s main federal parties would not qualify to run for a seat in the national assembly on account of his turban contributed to making the rule change an overdue necessity.

From Singh’s perspective, the timing of the TLMEP interview could not have been better.

Two of the big federal issues on the Quebec radar these days pertain to fiscal evasion and to the notion that digital giants are dispensed from the sales tax collecting obligations of their domestic competition. Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly’s credibility has yet to recover from a failed attempt to sell her deal with Netflix on TLMEP last fall.

Criticism of the Liberal government’s perceived inaction on either front has only increased since last week’s federal budget.

This is one high-profile issue that finds the NDP on the winning side of Quebec’s public opinion.

And then, Sunday’s show also featured an interview with beleaguered Bloc Québécois Leader Martine Ouellet. Despite having lost the confidence of a majority of her caucus, she maintains there are no grounds for her to resign or to submit to an early confidence vote of the party’s membership.

Ouellet’s defensive performance probably did not make her many new friends. With every interview, more Quebec voters are getting to see why seven of her 10 MPs have bolted from her caucus to sit as independents.

At this rate, many BQ supporters could be looking for an alternative political home in the next election. The opportunity to contrast her performance with Singh’s could not have come at a more propitious moment for the NDP.

At the time of Singh’s leadership victory last fall, there were concerns in some New Democrat quarters that he might not be able to hold on to his Quebec caucus. There was fear that some might bolt to the Bloc or opt to sit as independent MPs for the remainder of their mandate. No one then foresaw that the shoe would soon end up on the other foot.

Liberal strategists are banking on gains in Quebec – largely at the expense of the NDP – to hold on to power and a majority government in next year’s general election.

They may want to remind themselves that the province’s most reliable federal trend over the past few elections has been its capacity to spring surprises on the rest of the country.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

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