Potential NDP leader Jagmeet Singh might not rush to join the House. Is that a problem?

For a party leader, not moving with any haste to win a seat in the House could be understood as a realistic assessment of the political significance of Parliament. It could also be a problematic assessment.

There are precedents and pitfalls to consider when a party leader delays seeking election to the Commons

If he becomes leader of the federal NDP, Jagmeet Singh might wait until 2019 to seek a seat in the House of Commons. What does that say about the importance of Parliament? (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

You might forgive a potential NDP leader for not thinking his time is best spent in the House of Commons, taking part in the daily food fight that is question period.

That's because of Tom Mulcair.

Widely praised for his parliamentary interrogations of Stephen Harper in 2014 and 2015, Mulcair was touted by no less than Brian Mulroney as the best leader of the Opposition since John Diefenbaker.

But when it came time for Canadians to vote in 2015, that time in the House didn't seem to matter for much. Or at least not enough.

Instead, Justin Trudeau — who had his moments in the House, but was not considered a legendary performer — became prime minister.

All that might be one way to justify Jagmeet Singh's suggestion, should he be chosen leader of the NDP this fall, that he might forgo seeking a seat in the House until the general election in 2019.

Indeed, not moving with any haste to win a seat in the House could be understood as a realistic assessment of Parliament's significance in modern politics.

According to Singh's campaign, he will consider any by-election opportunity, but is prepared to wait. Speaking to the Canadian Press last week, Singh said he was open to arguments that he should move quickly to seek a seat.

One such argument could go like this: Not seeking a seat could suggest that Parliament isn't that important. And that would be a troublesome message.

A history of leaders without seats

Major national parties have periodically chosen leaders who did not have a seat in the House. But in most cases, those individuals set out to find a seat in relatively short order.

The longest run without a seat belongs to John Bracken, who went 30 months out of the House after becoming leader of the Progressive Conservative party in 1942.

In more recent times, there are a few similar precedents.

After becoming leader of the NDP in October 1995, Alexa McDonough went 20 months without a seat.

Jack Layton then went 17 months without a seat after succeeding McDonough in January 2003.

And after becoming leader of the Progressive Conservatives in November 1998, Joe Clark took 22 months to win a byelection.

In theory, Singh could surpass Clark's mark. If he becomes leader of the NDP in October and if the next general election takes place as expected in October 2019, Singh could be without a seat for 24 months.

But if there's anything that connects the examples of McDonough, Clark and Layton, it's that the party in question was a peripheral player.

Both McDonough and Layton took over when the NDP was the fourth party, having won nine and 13 seats respectively in the preceding election. Clark's PCs were the fifth party, having won 20 seats.

All those who moved quicker were in line to be the leader of the Official Opposition.

In 2017, the NDP is the third party, but it is also just two years removed from leading in the polls as the Official Opposition.

It might not be the government in waiting, but it is still a party that wants to be taken seriously.

CBC’s Polls Analyst Eric Grenier breaks down the numbers 4:50

The cautionary tale of Michael Ignatieff

None of those examples suggests staying away is a clever shortcut to overwhelming political success.

But the time saved by not having to vote, participate in question period or deliver the odd speech could be put to use travelling the country, shaking hands, updating one's Instagram account and otherwise promoting the party one leads.

And not having a seat would not preclude Singh from hanging around Parliament Hill and scrumming with reporters after question period and caucus meetings.

In a way, a decision by Singh to focus on places that are not Ottawa would seem to follow Trudeau's own suggestions, while in opposition, that his time was better spent elsewhere.

Conversely, it could recall Jack Layton blowing up Michael Ignatieff during an election debate in 2011 over the former Liberal leader's record of missing votes in the House.

In Ignatieff's case, the specific charge was not doing one's job.

Neglecting to even seek the job might insulate Singh from that attack. But it could open him up to other questions about his commitment to the foundational institution of Canadian democracy.

What would it say about Parliament?

There are no doubt practical considerations. There might not be an NDP MP willing to step aside, or no safe seat that Singh could expect to win. No doubt Singh would rather not spend part of the next two years losing a by-election.

But the implicit message of going two years without a seat could be that Parliament is not a significant concern. And that would be a problematic takeaway.

For as much as its proceedings might be ignored or derided by the general public or press, Parliament remains the practical and symbolic centre of Canadian democracy.

Even if the behaviour of its members is often unedifying, Parliament must be respected for its immense legislative power.

Even if it wasn't freighted with so much history and power, it would still be worth preserving as an open, multi-partisan forum for public accountability, scrutiny and debating the relevant issues of the day.

And so, as much as the action of professional politics already takes place away from the floor of the House, we might worry about anything that further suggests Parliament's proceedings are secondary.

Singh staying away for two years might not amount to a complete dismissal of the institution. But it might push the limit of acceptable avoidance.

And if he seems to succeed without a seat, it could encourage future leaders to push the line even further.

If Parliament matters, we might expect party leaders to treat it as a priority.

Political panel discusses federal NDP leadership candidates in Sunday's debate 8:41

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.