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Will the Liberals try to beat NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh in B.C. byelection?

Will the Liberals try to beat NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh in B.C. byelection?
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OTTAWA—The Liberal candidate who narrowly lost the B.C. riding of Burnaby South in the last federal election says his party should buck the perceived “leader’s courtesy” and nominate a contender to take down NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh in an upcoming byelection.

Adam Pankratz, a business professor at the University of British Columbia, said he would relish the chance run against Singh and may seek the Liberal nomination himself if the party decides to name a candidate.

“If you have a chance to beat up on a federal leader, then you do it,” said Pankratz, who sits on the local Liberal party riding association.

“You want the representative to be a Liberal, and we can win this riding, so why wouldn’t we do it?” Pankratz said.

“I don’t think it’s any secret that Jagmeet Singh is pretty widely considered a weak federal leader.”

Burnaby South has been vacant since Sept. 14, when NDP MP Kennedy Stewart resigned the seat to run for Vancouver mayor. Singh, a former lawyer who began his political as a provincial MPP for Brampton and has never held a federal seat, had already heralded his plan to run there, ending months of questioning about when and where he would try to get a seat in the House of Commons.

Jagmeet Singh puts on brave face ahead of 2019 election

By law, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has 180 days after Stewart’s resignation to schedule a byelection in Burnaby South — meaning he must say when the contest will be held by March 13.

Meanwhile, the Liberals have been repeatedly asked whether they will respect the “leader’s courtesy,” a sportsmanship convention that has been followed by some parties in the past when opposing leaders have sought seats in byelections. But Trudeau’s office and the Liberal party have been coy about what they will do.

Matt Pascuzzo, a press secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office, said byelections for Burnaby South and other vacant seats in Ontario and Quebec will be announced “in due course” and directed questions about candidate nominations to the Liberal party. Spokesperson Marjolaine Provost did not say whether the party intends to run a candidate against Singh in a byelection.

“No nomination meeting has been set as of yet … but we wish Mr. Singh well as his own party’s candidate,” she said in an email. “We’re looking forward to a positive opportunity to contrast our ideas with the other parties.”

In a statement to the Star, Singh said he is focused on issues in Burnaby South, such as “skyrocketing housing prises, rising out-of-pocket, health-care costs, and threats to the environment.” The federal NDP is opposed to the government-owned Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, which would almost triple the amount of oilsand bitumen transported to Burnaby and increase tanker traffic in B.C.’s Burrard Inlet.

“There’s a lot of people in Burnaby who feel let down by the Liberals,” Singh said. “If they don’t want to face the voters, that’s up to them.”

Much could be at stake for Singh in the Liberal decision. Stewart only beat Pankratz by 547 votes in 2015, a difference that represented just over 1 per cent of votes that were cast.

The Conservative candidate wasn’t far behind either, and in 2011, when the riding boundaries were slightly different, the Tory contender placed second and lost the riding by a slim 1,601 votes.

And while the Green party recently announced it would respect the “leader’s courtesy” and refuse to field a byelection candidate against Singh, the Conservatives are game to make it a contest. On Sept. 18, the local riding association nominated Jay Shin to be their candidate. The commercial lawyer is fluent in Korean and was an adjunct professor at Hanyang University in Seoul.

Mike McDonald is the chief strategy officer at Kirk & Co. Consulting in Vancouver, was chief of staff to former premier Christy Clark, and led the B.C. Liberal Party’s 2013 election campaign. He surveyed the history of the “leader’s courtesy” on his blog this summer, and found that the practice has been sporadic when party leaders vie for seats in byelections. Since 1962, every leader in such a race has been contested by at least one major party, and the NDP has never failed to run a candidate in each of those campaigns.

“The leader’s courtesy hasn’t really been a thing,” McDonald said. Instead, the decision is likely to be made strategically, he said. In this case, the Liberals could want to avoid defeating Singh so that he remains leader for the 2019 general election and isn’t replaced by someone more threatening. Conversely, running and losing to Singh could generate momentum for the NDP.

But McDonald said such a calculus is based on so many unknowns, that he would advise simply running a candidate. “My personal view is that it’s a political party’s job to run a candidate,” he said.

NDP strategist Robin MacLachlan, vice president at Summa Strategies in Ottawa, scoffed at the suggestion the Liberals would neglect to run a candidate out of “courtesy” to Singh. He said the riding is also a “hotbed” for issues where the NDP says the Liberals have disappointed progressive voters, including electoral reform, affordable housing and insistence on expanding the Trans Mountain pipeline.

“They don’t want to have that part of their agenda so strongly questioned by a defeat, so not running a candidate lets them play this whole courtesy game,” MacLachlan said.

“It’s been a tough year, his first year as leader. There’s no doubt about that,” he added. “Jagmeet Singh needs a win.”
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