So it wasn’t the mud-caked Trudeau-Brazeau sling-fest a lot of people had been hoping for, not even close. But the first major parties candidates debate for the Nov. 25 Toronto Centre by election, a one-hour panel format on Rogers TV (link here), had its more subtle dramas as NDP candidate Linda McQuaig and Liberal candidate Chrystia Freeland squared off in public for the first time. The stakes are high, at least metaphorically. What happens in the high-profile riding is being upheld as a portent of the 2015 election.
Back in July, when Freeland announced her intent to run in newly vacated Toronto Centre seat, the coronation appeared all but complete. Freeland was an acclaimed journalist and think-tank pundit who had lived outside of the country most of her adult life, returning only for two years to work at the Globe and Mail in the late 1990s. The Alberta native was a catch: a woman with an international profile, powerful allies and a bestselling book that appeared to dovetail with the “middle-class agenda” platform the Liberals were readying for the 2015 election. The riding, one of the country’s most diverse, has been a Liberal seat for two decades, though support waned considerably in 2011, with the NDP gaining ground. Then, a week later, McQuaig, a Toronto Centre resident and long-time activist, entered the race for the NDP nomination and certainty evaporated. McQuaig too is well-known for writing about economic disparity; her book on the subject was published before Freeland’s.
Since then, the by-election has been eclipsed by the Senate sideshow and Toronto civic trauma. Still, within the riding, campaigning has been intense, with Mulcair stumping for McQuaig, Trudeau for Freeland. There have been gaffes, a barrage of attacks on Freeland reminiscent of the “just visiting” attack ads against Michael Ignatieff, and she has been blasted for calling Sarah Palin a “feminist hero” in 2008. McQuaig hasn’t gone unscathed; her call for a two-person debate with Freeland was deemed “anti-democratic,” past comments and actions have come back to haunt her, and frictions exist between some of her published ideas and official NDP policy. Still, nobody is counting McQuaig out. And if last night’s showing is any indication, they shouldn’t.
The two women sat next to one another on a panel fielding questions from callers and Twitter. Conservative Geoff Pollock and the Green Party’s John Deverell served as left-right bookends. Pollock, a lawyer, came off as a credible and affable fellow who understands his odds of winning are about as good as Stephen Harper and Rob Ford going golfing together. At one point he actually suggested that anyone who didn’t want free trade should vote NDP. Deverell, a former journalist, proved an eloquent speaker with a mesmerizing ability to stuck like glue to his one talking point—the need for a proportional representation voting system to ensure greater democracy. Just when you thought he wouldn’t be able to turn a question about LGBT issues to proportional representation, Houdini-like, he managed to.
Freeland was decked out Liberal red, her signature on the campaign trail (somewhere there must be a Liberal brand advisor brandishing a Pantone chip). She cleaved to a clearly scripted message, which included repeated mention of her daughter being born in Toronto Centre. Again and again she referred to the campaign as “a job interview.” At times she seemed to be channeling Tracy Flick, the super-smart, know-it-all played by Reese Witherspoon in the 1999 movie Election. She quoted Churchill and had a tendency to correct others. When Deverell, a former Liberal, was explaining why he left the party in disillusionment in 2011 Freeland, a Liberal party member for mere months, patted his back and said “You can come back, John.” Deverell retorted he’d come back when the Liberal Party embraced democracy, again cycling back to proportional representation.
During the conversation Freeland contradicted comments made in an interview with Maclean’s this summer during her run for the Liberal nomination. Then, she quibbled with the suggestion she had been “approached” to run: “‘Approach’ is too strong a word,” she said, clearly wanting to avoid the fact she’d been parachuted in. “I would say things became more concrete; more general idea policy conversations took on the possibility of a more specific role.” Last night, the story changed as she boasted of her ties to the leader: “I’m here because Justin Trudeau invited me to contest the nomination in Toronto Centre,” she said, adding that she was named co-chair of his Economic Advisory Board in Sept. because Trudeau wanted her on his team “to flesh out the agenda.” What that means in actual policy is still vague, though Freeland spoke enthusiastically of “a solution which is about the middle class and growing the middle class from the middle class.”
That McQuaig is the more experienced debater was evident. Dressed in taupe, she was on the offensive throughout, lambasting both the Liberals and Conservatives, who she lumped together in sharing a long line of policies. She seemed prepared for the inevitable question about the contentious tax increases for the rich outlined in her book; when it came she shifted focus to the need for higher corporate taxation. She quickly found a segue to jab at Freeland’s authority to discuss the squeezed Canadian middle class: she asked how shadowing the superrich (Freeland made her name profiling Russian oligarchs, then global plutocrats) helped her understand the reality of life in the riding’s poor neighbourhoods. She also zoned in on whether Freeland believed economic inequity was even a problem, likening statements she’d made about inequities being an inevitable aspect of capitalism’s “creative destruction” to Reagan’s “trickle-down theory.”
Freeland’s counterpunches were not as vigorous. “You’re not reading my work as carefully as you might have,” she told McQuaig before arguing that the subtitle of her book—The Rise of the Global Superrich and the Fall of Everyone Else—should serve as proof she cared about the middle class: “It’s pretty clear there that I’m concerned,” she said. Her points that global experience and understanding the economy from an insiders’ perspective are pluses were more credible. “I don’t think class warfare and being divisive is the way to go,” she told McQuaig, echoing a tweet made Wednesday by Bob Rae.
Freeland avoided any partisan swipes. That could have been what prompted the last call directed at her from a man who said she “appears to be a nice person.” But he wondered how, as someone who had lived in the U.S. for 10 years, she can understand the concerns of Toronto Centre. In answering, Freeland corrected the caller. “I only lived in the U.S six years,” she said, overlooking the fact she’d lived in the UK years before that. “The day you become a citizen you have as much a right to participate in the country as someone descended from United Empire Loyalists,” she told him. It’s a lofty thought, but not an answer. Meanwhile, McQuaig sat taking notes. After all, this is only a warm-up.