Why Jagmeet Singh drones on about Jeff Bezos

Jeff Bezos. AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File

Jeff Bezos, founder and executive chairman of the e-commerce megafirm Amazon — and the world’s richest man — is squarely in NDP leader Jagmeet Singh’s sights during this election campaign.

And is it any wonder?

Bezos’s non-unionized company, which employs 23,000 people in this country, is notorious for its stingy wages and gruelling warehouse working conditions.

And Amazon has had high-profile outbreaks of COVID-19 at many of its Canadian sites, including one in March that infected 600 workers and forced the temporary shutdown of a Brampton distribution centre.

Read more: Jagmeet Singh takes aim at billionaires, promises to close corporate tax loopholes

These issues are fish in a barrel for New Democrats, whose party is rooted in the protection of workers’ rights, especially for those employed in Canadian-based subsidiaries of colossal American corporations. The ghost of Tommy Douglas is surely haunting Amazon’s Canadian headquarters in Toronto.

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But there’s much more that has made Bezos perfect cannon fodder for Singh and the NDP leading to the Sept. 20 vote. The Amazon founder has recently crystallized into a cartoon-like caricature of a grasping monopoly-capitalist.

On Monday, when the NDP leader was in Ottawa to lay out his party’s plans to slap a special revenue tax on transnational, web-based companies, Singh made clear which corporation and which corporate titan had inspired the policy.

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Canada election: NDP’s Singh promises to close corporate tax loopholes – Aug 30, 2021

“Companies like Amazon make profits in Canada, but pay no taxes here,” Singh said from a platform with a Parliament Hill backdrop, lamenting “the revenue they’re making off the backs of Canadians.”

An NDP government, he promised, would follow the example of France, which has proposed a three per cent tax on all revenues of international web giants operating in that country, bringing in “tens and tens of billions of dollars” in revenues for social programs, and other government spending.

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A billionaire 190 times over, the 57-year-old, space-obsessed Bezos has revolutionized retailing in a way that’s killing mom-and-pop stores around the world. So even as the NDP rises to the defence of workers, it’s leveraging the Bezos bogeyman to reach out to small business owners, too.

And the image of Bezos as an astronomically rich, ultra-indulgent tycoon-tyrant sharpened considerably after his brief, July 20 trip just beyond Earth’s atmosphere aboard the New Shepard rocket built by one of his other companies, the space-tourism enterprise Blue Origin.

At a post-flight press conference after the sub-orbital spaceship touched down safely in the West Texas desert, a giddy Bezos offered these ill-chosen words to the world: “I want to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer because you guys paid for all this.”

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The reaction, particularly from left-wing U.S. politicians, was swift and savage.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a U.S. Democrat, seethed on Twitter: “Yes, Amazon workers did pay for this — with lower wages, union-busting, a frenzied and inhumane workplace, and delivery drivers not having health insurance during a pandemic. And Amazon customers are paying for it with Amazon abusing their market power to hurt small business.”

Singh joined in the Bezos-bashing at the time, less than a month before the election call, with a pot shot into the Twittersphere: “Jeff Bezos’s space flight lasted 11 minutes. During the pandemic, every 11 minutes, he got about 1.6 million dollars richer. All while, Justin Trudeau allowed Amazon to pay $0 in taxes. It’s time the ultra-rich pay their fair share.”

Read more: Federal leaders face off over COVID-19 and vaccinations in first election debate

Singh had previously skewered Bezos as “a ‘prime’ example of a pandemic profiteer” because of Amazon’s record-setting profits during the COVID-19 crisis — who hasn’t had a package dropped off at their door in the past 18 months? — and the company’s controversial ability to avoid paying corporate taxes just about everywhere it operates, including the U.S.

Singh’s messaging about Bezos — with a nod to that other space-going billionaire, Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson, and a future one, Tesla’s Elon Musk — has been ramped up during the election campaign.

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At the Ottawa press conference, a reporter pressed Singh to explain why his plan to hike taxes on the “ultra-rich” and their “super-wealthy” companies — essentially a repeat of an NDP pledge from the 2019 election, and really from every other federal election since the pre-NDP days of the CCF — would resonate more deeply with Canadians in 2021.

Here, the gift given by Starman Bezos to all fist-shaking social democrats came into sharper focus.

“We just saw a bunch of billionaires go to space while people went through the worst economic crisis of their lives,” responded Singh, soaring into his sweet spot in the rhetorical stratosphere. “Just because they’re billionaires, they don’t pay their fair share. That doesn’t sit right with people.”

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It doesn’t necessarily hurt Singh’s campaign pitch that Bezos was photographed chatting with Trudeau in February 2018, a picture the Liberal leader proudly tweeted at the time as evidence that he and the Amazon boss were “talking about investing in Canada & creating more high-quality jobs for Canadians.”

There’s certainly been job growth and major investments from Amazon; the company’s largest Canadian “fulfillment centre” has just been built in suburban Ottawa. And while Canada doesn’t get corporate taxes from Amazon, there are payroll, property and other taxes that governments collect because of the company’s rampant success.

But in the wake of Amazon’s multiple COVID-19 outbreaks and other labour woes, and Bezos’s much-mocked space shot, there’s negligible PR value in having posed for a photo with this highly unpopular Earthling.

And, as Singh certainly believes, there’s some benefit to making Bezos a talking point in the election — and holding him up as a villain to win votes.

Randy Boswell is a Carleton journalism professor and former Postmedia News national reporter who specializes in Canadian history

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