The federal by-election in Toronto Centre pits two high profile candidates against one another in a race that could set the tone for the next general election.
Tomorrow’s federal by-election in Toronto Centre could be a nailbiter. The riding has been Liberal red for two decades, and polls have them leading the second-place NDP by a comfortable margin.
However, the Grits are still recovering from their collapse in the 2011 general election, when the NDP blew several large orange holes in the the former Liberal Fortress Toronto on the way to becoming the official opposition for the first time ever. The Orange Brigades would like to surf that 2011 momentum into another Toronto riding, while the Liberals hope for a convincing victory to fire up the troops and prove that leader Justin Trudeau is more than good hair and distinguished DNA.
We spoke with the two principal contenders in the race, NDP candidate Linda McQuaig and Liberal Chrystia Freeland.
Both McQuaig and Freeland are well-known journalists and authors. Both have published books with income inequality as a prominent theme (Freeland wrote The Plutocrats while McQuaig co-authored The Trouble With Billionaires with Neil Brooks), a highly visible problem in a riding that extends from the Range Rovers and renos of Rosedale to the low income, high-density towers of St. James Town and points south. Both candidates are women, which shouldn’t matter but does in a Parliament that’s still only 25 per cent female.
McQuaig, not surprisingly, leans further left. In person, she’s articulate and convincing, earnest but not NDP strident. She says that the move from journalism to NDP candidate was a natural one for her. “I’ve been a journalist and an author all my life, focused on fighting inequality and protecting social programs. In my writing I’ve always been an advocacy type of journalist.”
Her take on income inequality is straightforward. McQuaig says that the growing divide between the yacht-and-helicopter crowd and everyone else is not an unavoidable outcome of globalization and other economic factors, but a predictable—and reversible—result of economic policies that have been implemented in many Western countries since the 1980s. “It’s called Thatcherism: tax cuts for the rich, social spending cuts, privatization, deregulation, a tax on labour. You put those policies in place and presto, you get income inequality.”
Liberal candidate Freeland is equally lucid and polished, but favours the language of the economist over that of the socialist. She also identifies income inequality as an important issue, both in this campaign and for the global economy. However, while acknowledging that factors such as deregulation and the weakening of unions have played a role in furthering economic disparity, she disputes the notion that the problem can be remedied simply by reversing specific right-wing economic policies. “It is intuitively obvious…that what is going on is new and different. There are some really big underlying economic shifts. The technology revolution has had huge impact on a number of sectors and on the breakdown of rewards in those sectors and the number of people that are employed in those sectors. Likewise globalization. So…it’s really important to be honest and thoughtful about how the world has changed. When the problems change we need new policies.”
She suggests that part of the solution should be a concerted focus on entrepreneurship, to train people to “invent their own jobs” in the the fluid modern workforce. She also advocates an emphasis on increasing social opportunity and social mobility, via the strengthening of programs in both early childhood and post-secondary education.
Both candidates agree that the affordable housing shortage is a key issue in Toronto and favour some kind of housing policy at the federal level.
McQuaig identifies the lack of well-paid, full-time jobs as a critical problem, especially for youth. She advocates a two-pronged strategy for job creation: first, raising basic corporate tax rates and creating tax credits that are specifically tied to job creation. The second step would entail increased public spending on infrastructure projects, specifically in areas such as housing and transit. “We have a 170-billion-dollar infrastructure deficit,” says McQuaig. “If we want to have a strong future and an economically vibrant future we need to make those investments.”
Freeland agrees that infrastructure and jobs are important and related issues. “This is a city bursting at its seams in terms of transit and housing, and infrastructure is a tremendously effective supplier of jobs. We are living in a really low-interest-rate environment and it looks as if those low-interest rates may prevail for some time. If you’re living in an environment where you need more jobs, where your infrastructure is falling apart before your eyes, and interest rates are really low, it’s a no-brainer to say let’s do some big infrastructure projects.”
The New Democrats’ McQuaig cites the need for action on climate change, which she believes is a growing concern for the average Canadian, as extreme weather becomes more frequent and its effects more destructive. She is highly critical of the Harper government’s record on climate change (Canada recently came in last of 27 countries in a ranking on environmental protection, largely because of our withdrawal from the Kyoto Treaty and general enthusiasm for greenhouse gas emissions) saying, “They have a big oil agenda—they are into supporting big oil and that’s it.”
The Liberal Party hasn’t given climate change a high profile in this race, possibly because leader Trudeau has publicly supported both oil sands development and the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. Chrystia Freeland acknowledges the importance of the issue, albeit with some politician’s caution. “Climate change is a concern for all humans on planet Earth. I don’t want to make a scientific assertion which I haven’t been personally been able to prove but we certainly seem to be seeing more and more really big and tragic weather events and it’s hard not to connect those with climate change. I haven’t heard people proactively raising it at the door but of course it’s a huge issue. How could it not be?”
When we spoke with her, McQuaig also raises, unbidden, a familiar NDP talking point, suggesting that as someone with “deep roots in the community” she is better equipped to serve the citizens of Toronto Centre than Freeland, who only recently returned to Canada to run in the election after years of working in the U.S. and elsewhere. This has been a running theme through the NDP campaign—a skepticism about Freeland rooted in her recent return to the city.
The criticism has aroused Liberal ire, prompting Liberal curmudgeon Bob Rae (whose resignation prompted the election) to issue a hyperbolic tweet about “character assassination.” Nevertheless the attack is a sound strategy, given that a similar scenario probably contributed to the defeat of former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff in the 2011 election. Freeland, who’s had plenty of time to craft a response over the course of the campaign, observes that some half of Torontonians were born outside the country, and the fact of having lived elsewhere shouldn’t be viewed as a disadvantage. She also contends that her familiarity with international issues and ability to “get a seat at the table in some of the important international conversations” would be a benefit to the people of the riding.
While the Liberals are still the favorites in this race, an NDP surprise is far from impossible. And with many viewing the outcome in Toronto Centre as a bellwether for the general election in 2015, this is one to watch closely.