Why Toronto Centre is must-watch political theatre

Anne Kingston on the ones to watch in the race to replace Bob Rae

The nomination meetings for the by-election in Toronto Centre have paved way to the much-anticipated must-see policy-wonk event of the fall: Linda McQuaig facing off against Chrystia Freeland in an all-candidates debate. High-brow Dynasty! Davos with stilettos, and not the shoes! Sure, others will be on the stage too: John Deverell representing the Green Party, Travis McCrae the Pirate Party, and a yet-to be-named Conservative (they have one contender: lawyer Geoff Pollock). But McQuaig and Freeland, former journalists and political novices, are the ones to watch in the battle for Bob Rae’s former seat. Both are skilled public speakers known for their writing on social and economic inequity—a topic emerging as a signal issue of the 2015 federal election. Since their nominations,  there’s been much chatter about how either would be an outstanding representative for the riding, as if the fact they’re both smart, high-achieving women renders them fungible.  Anyone who sees them as peas in a pod will be in for a shock.

The riding has been in the spotlight since Freeland’s surprise announcement in July that she was leaving an big executive media job in New York to vie for the Liberal nod in high-profile Toronto Centre, held by the Liberals since 1993. Many saw it as political anointment. Freeland, author of the much-acclaimed 2012 book Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, appeared a ideal addition to a embattled party in need of new blood: accomplished, check; international reputation, check; born and raised in Alberta, check; woman, check; been on The Colbert Report, check. Justin Trudeau had been referring to both her and her book when discussing the vanishing middle class for months.  She arrived to a formidable team of Liberal veterans in place.

Then, a  week later, McQuaig announced her bid. If anyone can spar with Freeland about income-inequity, it’s McQuaig, the author of 11 books who has been writing on the subject for decades. In 2011, McQuaig, whose been called “Canada’s Michael Moore” co-authored The Trouble With Billionaires: How the Super-Rich Hijacked the World and How We Can Take It Back with law professor Neil Brooks.

Now Toronto Centre is viewed as some sort of chicken-entrail indicator of the 2015 federal campaign. If true, it bodes well for grassroots political engagement and intelligent debate. Female participation has also been encouragingly high. Two of three on the Liberal ballot were women; the NDP chose between three accomplished women.  The diverse riding reflects a political system in flux: two adjacent ridings, both former “Liberal strongholds,” went orange in 2011, the election that saw the NDP become the official opposition and Liberals fall to third party for the first time in history. The NDP candidate in Toronto Centre came within 10 percentage points of taking the riding: Rae’s support dropped 18 per cent, to 41 per cent of the vote. The fact the vanishing middle class is the animating topic in the yet-unscheduled by-election is also fraught with irony: the boundaries for the riding, one of the country’s most diverse ethnically and economically, will be redrawn before the 2015 election, with the affluent northern district forming the new riding of University-Rosedale.

McQuaig has home-turf advantage, having lived in the riding 12 years. She’s running on three primary issues: income security and resisting what she calls “the austerity agenda;” affordable housing; the  environment. Out of the gate, she blasted Conservatives and Liberals, speaking of the “post-Harper era”  at every opportunity. Long before the by-election, McQuaig had taken on Freeland in the American edition of The Trouble with Billionaires. She accused her of being “embedded” with the wealthy people she reported about. In her acceptance speech yesterday, she continued the attack, saying Freeland “presents herself as a progressive, but her writings reveal that she regards as income inequality as inevitable.” A long-time political operative who has known McQuaig for years expresses both respect and some fear: “I would not want to run into Linda in a dark alley.”

Freeland’s campaign has been more folksy and conciliatory. She repeatedly references her immigrant roots and growing up in Northern Alberta. She has not discussed specific policy or McQuaig, saying her energy was focused on winning the nomination. Her themes are sweeping: the benefits of capitalism, the need for early education, encouraging entrepreneurship—all destined to resonate with the Rosedale-Rotman business school crowd.

Such politesse should not be underestimated. Early on, predictable comparisons were made between Freeland and Michael Ignatieff. And though commonalities exist, so do big differences—the primary one being that Freeland is far better connected, particularly in the economic matrix. She’s a habitué  of  the Davos think-tank circuit and sat on the dean’s advisory council of the Rotman School of Business. One need only look at the back cover of Plutocrats, which features glowing blurbs from many of the people mentioned within, including former prime minister Paul Martin, described in the book as “a self-made millionaire.”  Larry Summers, former U.S. Treasury secretary who just yesterday dropped out of consideration for the position of Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, also gave it a shout-out.

But that was then. Now when asked why she’s running for office, Freeland borrows from Malcolm Gladwell, speaking of Canada being at a “tipping point.”  That can mean anything, of course. Which makes Toronto-Centre must-watch political theatre.

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