Deborah Coyne, the Toronto-based lawyer and policy consultant, and mother of the late Pierre Trudeau’s only daughter, launched a surprise bid for the federal Liberal leadership today. True to her reputation for not holding back when it comes to discussing policy, Coyne’s website features her positions on everything from the environment to foreign policy.
She told Maclean’s that her connection with Trudeau is inevitably part of her personal story, but that as a political influence she sees his vision of federalism as part of a longer lineage of Canadian leaders going back to Sir John A. Macdonald. At 57, she hasn’t ever won an election, although she ran in 2006 in Toronto-Danforth, losing to the NDP’s Jack Layton.
Her most memorable foray onto the national political stage came in opposing the Meech Lake Accord, alongside Trudeau, and then leading one of the committees that campaigned successfully against the subsequent Charlotteown Accord, in the 1992 referendum on the constitutional reform package.
She is not close to Montréal MP Justin Trudeau, Pierre Trudeau’s eldest son, who is also contemplating a run for the party leadership. Her daughter Sarah, Justin’s half-sister, is entering her final year of undergraduate studies at a U.S. university, and reportedly won’t be part of her mother’s campaign.
We spoke by phone this morning.
Q: When did you decide to have a run?
A: I’ve been thinking about it since the election in May, when the party really bottomed out. But it’s been clear for a long time that the party has lost it’s raison d’etre. It came together in the last few months.
Q: Do you have a team to support your campaign?
A: I certainly have a lot of supporters and so forth. But that’s what I’ll be spending the next weeks doing—putting together a more formal team and a plan of action.
Q: You have a thorough policy dossier up on your website. Could you comment on just one aspect of it, your focus on the Occupy movement?
A: I’m the kind of person that sees connections everywhere. Last fall you could sense the mood out there, this sense that we’ve lost this social contract, even here [in Canada], although obviously the movement was more successful in the U.S.
But what I find difficult in a federation like ours is that so many people might be interested in pensions, or about employment, but there’s more than one level of government involved. It’s very hard to focus. They should have transparency. We don’t we have EI that isn’t at loggerhead with social assistance.
A lot of what I’ve written about is how you can get more coherence, and accept that the national government has a role to play in all these areas that people are concerned about.
Q: Doesn’t that bring us back to some old fed-prov jurisdictional and constitutional disputes?
A: What I’m talking about is not disputes and tiresome old debates. It’s about collaboration, putting some more structures—not constitutional at all—so we can have more collaboration, such as the do down in Australia.
Q: You environmental policy ideas will remind some Liberals of the disastrous Stéphane Dion campaign of 2008.
A: You’re talking about the so-called “Green Shift” and the fact that I’m putting forward a national carbon tax. The difficulty with Mr. Dion’s tax, and indeed the NDP’s position now, is the criticism that it’s a redistribution of wealth. That’s not what I’m talking about at all. The consensus is amazing, from environmental groups to the corporations, around a carbon tax that is across the country, levied on producers and consumers, in which the revenues go back to the provinces in which they are generated. I’m proposing a more effective way to bring to bear the cost of using fossil fuels.
Q: So you feel you’ve inoculated yourself against the criticism that a carbon tax is just a revenue grab against Alberta and the other oil and gas producing provinces?
A: Well, exactly. The whole idea is not to make money or redistributing money but to bring to bear the cost of using fossil fuels, and the damage of climate change, to all our daily lives.
Q: You seem to be broadly for a strong central government, as opposed to provincial autonomy.
A: The role of the national government is to ensure that all Canadians have access to essential services of comparable quality. We send billions and billions of dollars from the federal government to the provinces to try to achieve this. And yet we keep seeing greater and greater disparities. We need to get back to looking at that fundamental role of the federal government, how it can work with the provinces, but with clear direction to establishing acceptable national standards, whether in heath care or a wide range of services, in a collaborative way.
Q: Why try to revive the Liberal party, rather than urge a merger with the NDP to give voters who are interested in a plausible centre-left alternative to the Conservatives a clear choice?
A: I don’t see that as the obvious solution. I’m in this race because I’m hearing from so many Canadians that they don’t like being polarized, they don’t think it has to be big government and high taxes or small government and low taxes. There’s clearly room for a third party, and I would like to see it be a party of principle that really governs for all Canadians.
Q: You have a lot of ideas, but no track record of winning in electoral politics. Why shouldn’t Liberals look for someone who has won somewhere, at some level?
A: That’s true, I haven’t been elected to Parliament yet. I’ve been in various national debates, if you go back to Meech and Charlottetown. I don’t think that’s a negative. This is about rebuilding the great institution of the Liberal Party of Canada. Eventually I will get elected, the fact that I haven’t found the time or place to do it is also part of politics.
In this video from her website, Coyne explains her motivations: