Jagmeet Singh doesn't want to be timid, but it's still not clear how bold he will be

With delegates to the NDP policy convention cheering for the promise of proportional representation, Jagmeet Singh declared that "the time to be timid was over" and then he spoke of "courage." But the extent of Singh's courageousness is still taking shape.

NDP leader begins to sketch out his vision for 2019

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh speaks during the federal NDP Convention in Ottawa on Saturday. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

With the crowd enthusiastically cheering a promise of electoral reform — as good a sign as any that you are in a room full of New Democrats — Jagmeet Singh declared that "the time to be timid was over" and then he spoke of "courage."

"We need to have the courage to get the job done," he told the NDP's policy convention on Saturday afternoon. "There are so many areas that I'm sure we can all think about if we had the courage, if our government had the courage to do what was right, we could make people's lives better."

But the extent of Singh's courageousness is still taking shape.

As he proceeded through his keynote address, Singh vowed to amend bankruptcy laws to protect the pensions of workers. It is a timely promise in light of Sears' downfall, and delegates stood to applaud. But the promise itself was already part of the NDP's 2015 platform.

Implementing universal pharmacare, building affordable housing and expanding internet access — three other issues Singh raised — were part of Tom Mulcair's ill-fated offer too.

In other areas — climate change, Indigenous reconciliation, reducing inequality — Singh would presumably go further or faster than Justin Trudeau's Liberals have. On infrastructure, Singh would not do anything that involved privatization.

There were two relatively new items: adding dental care to the public health system and applying domestic taxes to internet services like Netflix. The former proposal has yet to be explained in detail, the latter is a relatively small issue.

Singh's boldest proposal — to decriminalize all drug use — went unmentioned on Saturday, though party delegates did pass a resolution enshrining it as a party position.

The flipside of Tom Mulcair

Beyond policy, there were interesting notes in Singh's remarks.

At various points, Singh made direct arguments for the value and utility of government and even taxation. Such ideas might have seemed more interesting when the prime minister was still a Conservative, but those words could lay the foundation for further proposals that would have the government both doing more and asking for more.

Near the end of his 40-minute speech, Singh also directly addressed anti-black racism, a concern that has not often been front and centre in Canadian politics. Earlier, delegates passed a resolution calling for a federal ban on the police practice of carding.

But the most interesting thing about Singh's NDP is probably still Jagmeet Singh, even if he has been less than a sensation since winning the party leadership last fall.

After dumping Mulcair in 2016, New Democrats chose someone quite unlike him. Singh is cool and casual, perhaps even too casual at times: at some point, he might need to show a bit more gravitas.

He jokes easily and laughs at himself. He is also without a seat in the House of Commons and he has struggled to establish a presence on Parliament Hill.

Singh was preceded to the stage on Saturday by a smartly produced video that laid out "Jagmeet's story," from his decision to wear a turban to his family's struggles to his acceptance to law school. That video showcased not only an interesting story, but also Singh's ability to tell it.

Within it was something else: Singh's concern about the cost of post-secondary education. 

That concern went unaddressed in the remarks that followed and a resolution calling for the elimination of tuition fees (in co-operation with provincial governments) was put off earlier on Saturday for further consideration. But such a proposal might show a measure of political courage. It would at least not be timid.

And paying for it might require other daring suggestions.

Bold enough to achieve a humble goal

There is no doubt a thin line between daring and reckless, between showing courage and proposing things that voters aren't willing to take seriously.

But when your party has just 44 seats in the House of Commons, and when your stridently progressive party is competing with a relatively popular and relatively progressive government, there is something to be said for acting boldly. Even if just to get people's attention.

A few courageous moves might not be enough to wholly satisfy Avi Lewis and the Leapers, the would-be disrupters who pop up every so often to propose that the NDP adopt the Leap Manifesto and swear off all oil development.

But for now Singh might settle on being bold enough to achieve a humble goal.

Forty-six years ago, Avi's grandfather, David Lewis, led the NDP against another Trudeau seeking re-election. Lewis's NDP only picked up six seats, but Pierre Trudeau's Liberals lost 38 seats. Those New Democrats thus held the balance of power in the House and from that position they could influence federal policy.

In February 2018, with the NDP sitting around 16 per cent in the polls, it would perhaps be courageous enough to imagine that Singh might be in a similar position after October 2019.

The leader of the NDP talks about the work being done this weekend at the party's convention in Ottawa. 10:29