If Jagmeet Singh wins, the haemorrhage of Quebec support for the party will continue. If he loses, the damage done from the NDP turban wars will be felt by the party in other key parts of the country. Whatever the outcome, this will likely be the last NDP leadership vote where a single constituency can override a province.
By SHEILA COPPS
First published on Monday, September 25, 2017 in The Hill Times.
OTTAWA—The New Democratic Party turban wars were officially launched last weekend.
The first toxic, anti-turban bomb dropped was dropped by Quebec NDP MP Pierre Nantel on the eve of a leadership pre-vote launch in Hamilton.
Nantel characterized candidate Jagmeet Singh’s religious garb as “ostentatious” and “not compatible with power.”
Party officials and candidates moved immediately to distance themselves from his inflammatory pronouncement.
But the salvo served to highlight the schism between Quebec New Democrats and the rest of their membership across Canada.
Singh’s biggest challenge will not be getting a seat in the House of Commons. It will be getting elected as New Democratic party leader.
Unless he wins the lengthy first-round vote that began last Monday, the Ontario NDP deputy leader will be swiftly returned to Queen’s Park.
Front-runner status is never a good thing in a race that has more than two candidates.
For better or for worse, there is an “anybody but,” phenomenon that comes into play when supporters of other candidates have to make a second choice.
Singh also appears to be the sole candidate to speak out strongly against proposed Quebec legislation limiting certain visible religious symbols in public service dealings.
While Singh has come out squarely against the bill, Quebec-based candidate Guy Caron has taken the opposite position. He says the Sherbrooke Declaration makes it clear this has nothing to do with the federal NDP.
Leadership candidates Charlie Angus and Niki Ashton were left scrambling in the middle when trying to explain their perspectives during media scrums at the largely English-speaking Hamilton vote launch.
Experienced Parliamentarians, they both clearly understood that more than one-third of the current NDP parliamentary caucus hails from Quebec. Most are supporters of the Sherbrooke Declaration, affirming the right to separate from the country by a simple majority vote.
It was that declaration that encouraged disaffected Quebec separatists to join the NDP during the heyday of the Jack Layton Orange Crush.
If Singh breaks with that dogma, he will definitely face opposition from Quebec delegates. Nantel, who threatened to quit the party last week, has already been the subject of media speculation that he will quit the party to run provincially for the Parti Québécois.
In mathematical terms, Quebec support does not count for much in this race. There are currently fewer than 5,000 members in the province.
Compare those numbers to the additional 47,000 new members that Singh says he has signed up since his entrance into the race only four months ago.
On the face of it, those numbers are very impressive.
But because they are largely concentrated in a few key ridings across the country, they do raise questions about the national electability factor, which looms large in any party’s decision about the choice of a new leader.
The NDP voting system is largely to blame for this anomaly. Current party rules allow every member to have a vote, but they do not include a weighting system to reflect regional balance.
Under this new selection process, a single riding in Ontario, like Brampton, will likely exercise greater influence in the choice of the new leader than the whole province of Quebec.
That doesn’t matter much in the leadership race runoff, but it sure counts in an election. So it makes sense for party voting systems to mirror electoral reality.
The reason we have Canadian federal votes weighted by province and riding is to ensure that all parts of the country are given an opportunity to make their choice.
In the current electoral system, rural ridings have numerically more influence than votes in concentrated urban centres because the challenge of travel in a large geographic area is balanced by fewer voters per constituency.
The changes, adopted to counter this, have lead to the creation of a new voting system with similar potential for skewing.
Whatever the outcome, the first job of the new leader will be to heal internal divisions.
If Singh wins, the haemorrhage of Quebec support for the party will continue.
If he loses, the damage done from the NDP turban wars will be felt by the party in other key parts of the country.
Whatever the outcome, this will likely be the last NDP leadership vote where a single constituency can override a province.
Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.