Views / Opinion

Scheer and Singh take different paths to become known to voters: Harper

The Conservative leader is needed in the Commons, the NDP leader is free to travel.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, left, and Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer. The path to becoming known to Canadians is different for both men, Tim Harper writes.


NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, left, and Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer. The path to becoming known to Canadians is different for both men, Tim Harper writes.

When voters head to the polls in four federal by-elections next month, Jagmeet Singh’s name will not be on offer in any of them.

The new NDP leader says he is quite comfortable without a seat in the House of Commons.

Meanwhile, another recently-minted federal leader, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, has been handed a series of Liberal gifts and rises regularly in the Commons to take Justin Trudeau to task on his treatment of small business, conflict-of-interest allegations against his finance minister and tax evasion allegations against his chief fundraiser.

Which path is more likely to get the new leader known to Canadians in the second half of the Trudeau mandate?

Becoming known to the electorate in opposition is tougher than it looks. And it may never have been tougher.

There is polling data, and anecdotal evidence that shows this.

According to Abacus Data, 71 per cent of voters say they don’t know Scheer “all that well, or know him at all.” He has been leader since May.

For Singh, who has been leader for less than six weeks, the comparable numbers are 79 per cent.

At the other extreme, Abacus found that 84 per cent of respondents said they had “a very good idea or pretty good idea” of Trudeau as a person and a leader.

Scheer, with Trudeau out of the country, spent the past two days at events like the Royal Winter Agricultural Fair and a chamber of commerce luncheon. But he has been spending the bulk of his time in the Commons on his opposition leader duties.

He must guard against Mulcair syndrome.

The former NDP leader, Tom Mulcair, was seen as a superlative opposition leader in the Commons, flashing an effective prosecutorial style against Stephen Harper, particularly during the Mike Duffy Senate affair.

Meanwhile, Trudeau spent little time in the Commons as third party leader in a majority Parliament where his presence meant little.

The heavy lifting was left to Mulcair while Trudeau spent his time in the much more valuable pursuit of voters, far from the halls of the Centre Block, something Singh will seek to emulate.

Mulcair became symbolic of the diminished value of the daily question period in an era when multiple voices are available to voters.

That was driven home to me anecdotally during a Caribbean holiday in 2014.

A table full of Canadians, from various regions with various backgrounds gathered one evening and the talk turned to politics.

I challenged one of my new friend’s view that all politicians were alike by asking her why she thought Trudeau, Harper and Mulcair were all the same.

“Who?’’ she responded.

She had never heard of Mulcair. It turned out none at the table had heard of the NDP leader, the man this Ottawa refugee had so assiduously studied in question period. Mulcair had been NDP leader for almost two years.

Singh might have been wise to seek a seat if there was a good fit, but there isn’t.

In Bonavista–Burin–Trinity, the outgoing Liberal Judy Foote won with 82 per cent of the vote in 2015. New Democrats won 7 per cent.

In Scarborough-Agincourt, they won only 8 per cent, to the 52 per cent won by the late Liberal Arnold Chan.

In the Saskatchewan riding of Battlefords-Lloydminister, the retiring Conservative Gerry Ritz took 61 per cent and the New Democrat just 17.6 while the British Columbia riding of South Surrey-White Rock was a tight battle between the Liberals and Conservatives with the New Democrat registering barely 10 per cent.

The NDP is one federal party that often chooses leaders who do not sit in the Commons, including Tommy Douglas, Alexa McDonough and Jack Layton.

Singh says he looks at the way Layton toured the country learning the issues, something he says he wants to do.

But such an approach was not a resounding success for Layton. He was able to take the NDP from 13 seats to 19 seats.

Singh, if he waits until the 2019 federal election to seek a seat, would also be the longest-serving leader in the party’s history to go without a Commons seat.

Layton and Douglas waited 14 months and McDonough, who resisted pressure to seek a seat in by-elections outside her native Nova Scotia, waited 20 months before winning in Halifax.

Two new leaders. One pressing the flesh. The other filling his role as the leader of the loyal opposition.

Recent history suggests the Commons may not be the fastest route to victory.

More on