The two leading contenders in the Toronto Centre federal by-election are both authors, income-inequality experts, and former journalists. Since a one-on-one debate wasn’t in the cards, we sat down with each candidate separately to discuss media frenzies, bridging the gap between Regent Park and Rosedale, and why Toronto voters deserve more from their politicians than crack-smoking and cover-ups.
NPD candidate Linda McQuaig
You know we have to talk about Rob Ford, right?
Well, who isn’t talking about him?
During last week’s debate, one of your opponents, Chrystia Freeland, said Torontonians were feeling sorry for the mayor. Is that the sense that you get?
I must say that’s not what I’m encountering at the door. What I hear is, “We’ve got to get rid of this guy.” Sure, people think he needs help. Nobody would deny that, but what I’ve been hearing more of is that this has gone way too far and we have to put an end to the daily circus. It’s distracting.
Speaking of distractions, the first Toronto Centre debate took place just as the media started to roll out pussy-gate. Is it difficult campaigning alongside the biggest scandal this city has ever seen?
Not really. It’s not like everything going on with the mayor is helping one candidate more than another. I guess it might be hurting the conservatives a bit because of their connection, but in general, I think this by-election is getting quite a bit of attention.
As a former reporter, how do you feel about how the media has covered the mayor’s meltdown?
I think they deserve a lot of credit. Given the nature of what’s going on, what are they supposed to do—play it down? At this point, it would be hard to play it up! It’s not like when the media goes berserk over Michael Jackson’s death or something that is, to me, not an important story. This is a legitimate political story. The fact that the mayor is so bizarre, over the top, and illegal—that’s not the media’s fault.
During the first debate, you drew parallels between the Rob Ford scandal and what has been going on in Ottawa.
Stephen Harper is not Rob Ford, but what I meant is that both scandals are representative of this attitude that it’s okay to not be accountable. Harper should be answering questions honestly in the House about what he knew and when he knew it [regarding the alleged hush money the PMO paid to Mike Duffy]. We are not getting that. We are getting obfuscation. And his story keeps changing; he just tries to muddy the waters all the time.
Is it possible those waters contain a proverbial crack pipe?
Well, the question at the core of this is: Was the Prime Minister aware of the payment to hush up Duffy? If he was, that’s an enormous scandal. In some ways, it’s more serious than a crack pipe.
There is some debate about whether this type of political spectacle leads to mobilization or disengagement. What do you think?
You certainly hear a lot of “Oh, politicians, they’re all so corrupt—why bother?” which is very unfortunate. Of course the Rob Ford thing is the traffic accident you can’t take your eyes off of. And I think the whole scandal in the PMO has really captured people’s attention. People are interested in the democratic process, which is a good thing.
The Toronto Centre riding is one of the most economically diverse in the country. Is the challenge to figure out how to represent the interests of everyone, or do low-income citizens in Regent Park need more attention than the Rosedale mansion crowd?
It’s true that the poorer areas in the riding need extra attention because of the extremeness of their situation, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t represent everyone. The interests of both groups aren’t separate. The dramatic rise of inequality over the past 30 years is bad for everyone, even the wealthy. The potential for conflict—social breakdown like what’s happened in the States, where you have slums and gated communities—I think that’s destructive to a society as a whole and I think a lot of affluent Canadians would agree.
Do you think the Occupy movement did much to change the conversation about inequality in this country?
I really do. Before that, the conversation was always about poverty. It was very difficult to get people to focus on the inequality aspect. Talking about
the one per cent and the 99 per cent summed it up so perfectly. It was such a simple formulation, but it allowed people to make some important connections.
Salt or pepper?
Wine or beer?
AGO or ROM?
Best local burger joint?
The Rebel House.
Bieber or Drake?
Orient Express from London to Istanbul.
Who should play you in a movie?
Who should play Rob Ford?
Chris Farley would have been great.
Liberal candidate Chrystia Freeland
How is competing with the political spectacles both in Toronto and Ottawa affecting the by-election?
I don’t see it as a competition. I do think that the things that are happening in Ottawa and at City Hall have strengthened my core reason for why I’m doing this, as well as a central part of what the Liberal party under Justin’s leadership is really about, which is very affirmatively and positively standing up and saying politics is a decent and honourable thing. You’re laughing.
It’s just that you’re really fighting against the tide at this particular moment.
Right, yeah. I know that it’s natural to laugh, but there is real danger that over the long term, [that kind of attitude] will erode our democracy, which is why I believe now more than ever how important it is to have a positive approach. I’m a recovering journalist myself and I understand how easy it is to dismiss that as sort of a kumbaya sentiment, but it’s so important. Politics is democracy. It’s such a precious right.
The Liberal campaign had to deal with a scandal of its own recently. In retrospect, do you feel like the Justin Trudeau “Ladies Night” event for women in Toronto was offensive, or at least ill-advised?
That event was about was some really active, engaged volunteers—women younger than I am, certainly hipper and cooler—reaching out and making an effort to engage a group of people who weren’t previously part of the political activist core. I think that is absolutely fantastic.
So it doesn’t concern you that an invitation to attract female voters was all wine and gossip?
I’ve been to a lot of political gatherings and have observed a lot of men get engaged in politics with wine and gossip. I don’t think that is gender specific.
You’ve spent a bit of time with Trudeau at this point. Tell us something about the Liberal Party leader that everyone doesn’t
Justin himself is such a charismatic person and, at this point, such a superstar that a lot of people might not be aware of what a team builder he is. He’s really serious about being a great supporter and coach. Even small things—he has noticed that I am not very tall, so he is really careful to make sure I’m not being blocked when we appear in front of a camera.
I was hoping for something more along the lines of: “He sings Donna Summer in the shower.”
I have never showered with Justin. I will tell you that I was surprised yesterday when he had a really hearty lunch—bangers and mash. He’s in such good shape, I would have thought he’d have a salad.
Okay, let’s talk about the Toronto Centre riding, which is one of the most diverse in the country. You have said that your approach is about “uniting not dividing,” but isn’t that easier said than done?
I think one of advantages that Canada has is that our social fabric still exists. People in Rosedale still feel socially and culturally connected to Regent Park. That doesn’t exist in all societies. Yesterday, Justin and I were at the Regent Park Christian Resource Centre. I was talking to the director who told me that the centre was birthed by the Rosedale United Church. That’s where the seed money to create it came from.
Do you have any specific plans in terms of how to bridge the Rosedale/Regent Park gap?
We are not going to have middle class prosperity and opportunity without economic growth that is much more robust than what we have now. To get that, we have to include and embrace business, as opposed to having a hostile attitude. When you think about economic growth in Canada, the answer is not about raising taxes. For the federal government, money is incredibly cheap right now. Here in Toronto Centre, there is a crying need for infrastructure. Projects like that will create jobs.
In the first debate, Linda McQuaig threw a little shade in your direction, insinuating that you are perhaps a bit too cozy with billionaires.
Look, I have interviewed lots of CEOs, people on Wall Street, Dubai, Silicon Valley, Moscow. That was part of my work and part of the CV that I’m bringing forward. To me, having a sophisticated understanding of the key players in the world economy is a definite plus. I’ve earned a seat at the table in terms of the big global economic discussions .
Okay, last thing: In 2008, you called Sarah Palin a “feminist role model.” Do you still feel that way?
It was a column I wrote. You should read it. Your readers should read it. My core point, which I stand by, was that as a feminist, I believe that it’s really important to have more women break through the glass ceiling. It counts as a breakthrough, regardless of ideology. I wouldn’t have voted for her myself, but if I were British, I probably wouldn’t have voted for Margaret Thatcher.
You’re probably the first person to liken Sarah Palin to Margaret Thatcher.
Salt or pepper?
Wine or beer?
AGO or ROM?
Best local burger joint?
Big Smoke Burger on King Street.
Bieber or Drake?
Who should play you in a movie?
Who should play Ford?
My dad says nobody should be condemned to that.
Reading between the lines
Both of the frontrunner candidates in the Toronto Centre by-election have recently written books on the ever-widening income gap between the rich and everyone else. We did a quick comparison.—Chris Bilton
The Trouble With Billionaires by Linda McQuaig and Neil Brooks
Tone: Judgmental, then hopeful.
Focus: Mainly U.S. and Canada.
Historical perspective: The Great Recession echoes the Great Depression, especially when it comes to the banks’ role in allowing rampant speculation.
Audience: Occupy protestors, future political candidates looking to run on a pro-99 per cent ticket.
Emblematic quote: “One can perhaps grasp the sheer size of billionaires’ wealth by imagining how lavishly they are able to spend, just by living off the interest from their fortunes.” [p. 9]
Opinion of the super rich: Billionaires are never self-made, since all economic success is based on the gains made by previous generations.
But are they evil?: Pretty much, especially folks like John Paulson, who benefitted from the 2007 crash by betting that all those mortgages would fail. Oh, and anyone using offshore bank accounts to keep some $8 trillion (globally) away from government taxes, or who use their economic clout to influence policies that benefit the super-rich while making every one else suffer.
What’s the solution?: Higher taxes for the rich, because history shows that this benefits everyone.
Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-rich and the Fall of Everyone Else by Chrystia Freeland
Tone: Inquisitive, a little bit fawning, but ultimately fairly damning in her portrait of where things have gone wrong.
Focus: Global, but with an eye towards Canada.
Historical perspective: The Long Depression of the late-19th century, which affected most of Europe and North America, and the end of communism in Russia are both as informative as the Great Depression.
Audience: Report On Business readers, Noam Chomsky fans.
Emblematic quote: “In the nineteenth century, the industrial revolution and the opening of the American frontier created the Gilded Age and the robber barons who ruled it; today, as the world economy is being reshaped by the technology revolution and globalization, the resulting economic transformation is creating a new gilded age and a new plutocracy.” [p. 19]
Opinion of the super rich: It’s not just the 1 per cent we should worry about, but also the 0.1 per cent, who represent the richest of the rich and wield far more market power and political influence.
But are they evil?: Only in the sense that the superstars of finance, technology, politics, entertainment, etc. have created this vastly elevated lap of luxury, one that excludes concern for the 99 per cent.
What’s the solution?: Follow the lead of former governor of the Bank of Canada, Mark Carney, and keep tight regulations on banks. Also, higher taxes for the super-rich are in order.
Wait, there are other candidates?
An all- too-brief rundown of the other contenders vying for Toronto Centre’s seat.
› Geoff Pollock, PC Party
A civil litigation lawyer, he’s done pro-bono work and is a member of the army reserves. Pollock hopes to reclaim the seat, which the Conservatives haven’t held since 1993.
› John Deverall, Green Party
Another journalist! This former Star writer recently left the Liberal Party to join forces with the Greens in an effort to secure their second-ever seat in Parliament.
› Judi Falardeau, Libertarian Party
The Cabbagetown chef, who ran for this seat in the 2011 election, will once again be waving the smaller-governments-and-more-deregulation banner.
› Michael Nicula, Online Party
Since 2009, our political spectrum has included something called the Online Party of Canada, which aims to increase online voting and implement proportional representation. Huh.
› Leslie Bory, Independent
Bory ran last year in the race to fill the late Jack Layton’s Toronto-Danforth seat and is currently the leader of the Maple Party of Canada, whose Facebook eligibility drive has 21 likes.
› Kevin Clarke, Independent
The homeless activist and perennial mayoral candidate/shit-disturber is registered to run here, which doesn’t necessarily guarantee he’ll still be on the ticket come election day.
› Dorian Baxter, Progressive Canadian Party
The self-proclaimed “champion [of] the underdog” emigrated here from Kenya in 1968, taught in schools across Ontario for 33 years, and is now an Anglican priest and the candidate for the other PC party.
› Bahman Yazdanfar, Independent
His flyer encouraging non-voters to participate reads a bit like an infomercial, but if it helps get people out, then good on him.
› John “the Engineer” Turmel, Independent
He holds the Guinness World Record for both contesting and losing the most elections, so this will likely be just another notch on the record post.