Opinion: Singh’s success could help Scheer

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

He did so not because he performed particularly well, but because New Democrat Leader 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 turban-wearing Sikh he has experienced racism first hand, yet doing so without sounding bitter.

During Monday’s debate, like the two that preceded it, he came across as engaged and natural.

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 old-fashioned 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.

Throughout the debate, he tried to present himself as a neutral observer disconnected from the antics of the two front-runners, but well aware of their inadequacies.

To a large extent, he succeeded.

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.

That plays well in Quebec, but less so in the rest of Canada, where Bill 21 is generally viewed as racist.

Trudeau, by comparison, has tried to straddle the gap, saying that while he’s not prepared to challenge the law now, he might do so later.

During Monday’s post-debate 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.

Thomas Walkom is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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