Linda McQuaig's candidacy for Toronto Centre: The prospect of doing things differently under an NDP government

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When someone does something really well, you do not expect them to decide to so something else. That explains my surprise hearing that with a byelection upcoming, Linda McQuaig was declaring for the NDP nomination in Toronto Centre.  

McQuaig has produced a steady stream of intelligent, witty, economic reporting and analysis over the last 30 years, an era marked by dumb economic policy and dubious economics. Why not continue her fine work?

In a phone interview with rabble.ca she said it was the prospect of doing things differently under an NDP government in a post-Harper period that led to her entry into politics.

The first-time political candidate had encouragement to seek the nomination from NDP activists in the riding, where she has lived for the past 13 years. In the past, McQuaig had suggestions to run from well-wishers and admirers who heard the author and columnist speak, including from Jack Layton when he was party leader.

Beginning in 1987 with Behind Closed Doors, her account of how the tax system was reformed for the benefit of wealthy families and rich corporations, McQuaig has been on the lookout for important Canadian policy trends, and subjected them to critical examination in nine books, most recently The Trouble With Billionaires (co-authored with Neil Brooks).

In The Wealthy Banker's Wife (1993) she dissected the changes to social policy that included ending "universality" for social programs, and abolishing the family allowance.

In The Quick and the Dead (1991) she exposed the reasons corporations were so eager to get the Mulroney government to do a free trade pact with the U.S.  

As a reporter for the Globe and Mail in the 1980s, McQuaig got a major scoop in the middle of the 1988 national free trade debate. Conservative MP and Finance Committee Chair Don Blenkarn revealed to her that the planned GST, an eight (later seven, now five) per cent consumption tax, would be applied at the border to imports, making a mockery of supposed consumer gains from tariff reductions planned over 10 years under the Canada-U.S. FTA.

The eight per cent tax was to be imposed on all imports, including the over 60 per cent of goods that entered Canada duty free from the U.S., offsetting lower prices for Canadians expecting to benefit from duty reductions on American goods. Exchange rates permitting, the GST facilitated the golden age of cross-border shopping by Canadians, not the lower consumer prices promised by government, and touted by the Globe and Mail editorial board.

McQuaig has been writing extensively about income inequality, and what to do about it. She has plenty to say about current government policies that have generated stupendous benefits for the top one per cent, income increases for the well off, and distributed hurt to many Canadians.   

Asked if she was familiar with the writings on inequality of Chrystia Freeland, another journalistic star looking to grab the Liberal nomination in the same riding, McQuaig said she had read enough to know that she and Freeland have very different accounts of what created growing income disparities, and what policies needed to be adopted to counter the discouraging trends.

Though McQuaig is taking nothing for granted in her nomination battle with Jennifer Hollett, a high-profile, highly qualified candidate, she looked forward to potentially debating Freeland (also trying to win a nomination race) on the economic issues of our times.

"It would be pretty special," she said, "if a byelection campaign in Toronto Centre could turn into a debate on the economic future of Canada."

Freeland has not only been recruited by Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and his campaign chair Gerald Butts to run for the party, her writings have contributed to the opportunities for the middle-class theme used by Trudeau in his leadership campaign and as Liberal leader on his travels across the country.

Prominent trade unionist Fred Wilson of CEP has suggested the NDP should be recruiting progressive economists as candidates to counter the unfortunate characterization of the party as weak on solutions to economic problems.

Erin Weir, an economist with the Steelworkers, rumoured to be a candidate for federal office himself following his unsuccessful run at the Saskatchewan NDP leadership, and Chair of the Progressive Economics Forum, introduced McQuaig at the launch of her candidacy: "Linda has literally written the book on inequality, tax fairness, fiscal policy, globalization, energy and the environment."

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of her running is that McQuaig with all her talent and capacity chooses (like Jennifer Hollett and Chrystia Freeland) to engage in the political process. A main victory of the right has been to discredit not just government as an agent for positive change, but electoral politics as well.

A high-profile campaign by McQuaig speaking to the economic issues of job creation, wage and income stagnation, and the damage wrought by the austerity agenda might be what the NDP needs to encourage it to build the next Canadian election campaign around policies to strengthen the economy. After all, the contest expected in October 2015 will come down to which leader and which party has economic credibility.

Duncan Cameron is the president of rabble.ca and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

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