The two leading candidates in the federal by-election in Toronto Centre faced off about pipelines, income inequality and affordable housing in a debate at Jarvis Collegiate Nov 20.
The NDP’s Linda McQuaig and Liberal candidate Chrystia Freeland, both journalists and authors of books on inequality, dominated the debate in front of a packed room.
But debate moderator John Tory, the former leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, asked all four candidates a number of questions from local community groups, social service organizations and students on a range of issues.
The discussion became heated when the candidates were asked about affordable housing. McQuaig blasted the Liberals for killing the national housing strategy under Paul Martin.
Freeland said she supports developing a new national housing strategy but rejected the idea that she should have to answer for decisions made by the Liberals almost two decades ago. "On Paul Martin, look, none of us are voting about what happened in 1995," she said.
But McQuaig continued to press Freeland about her support for Martin’s record. "You can't have it both ways. You were out there campaigning with Martin. Did you ask him why he cancelled it? We had a system that worked . . . Not wanting to talk about it calls into question your commitment to the very idea [of a housing strategy].”
Freeland said she is focused on the economy and how the middle class is being "squeezed." She said Canada needs to grow the economy from the middle out.
At several points, the audience booed in response to Conservative Geoff Pollock’s statements, especially when he expressed support for Prime Minister Stephen Harper's “tough on crime” agenda.
The Green Party's John Deverell pointed out that Canada's crime rate is actually decreasing, yet the Harper government is building more prisons. Pollock responded, "I beg to differ."
Meanwhile, McQuaig was cheered when she said Harper looks the other way when it comes to white-collar crime and criminal behaviour in his own government. "The Harper government says it's tough on crime. But really, he is only tough on some crime.”
On harm reduction, Freeland, McQuaig and Deverell all agreed that addiction is a health issue and should not be criminalized. Pollock didn’t appear to have a clear understanding of harm-reduction methods and said he'd need to consult with the community on the issue.
The candidates also battled on the topic of climate change and the Keystone XL pipeline.
When McQuaig pointed out that Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau backs the pipeline, Freeland responded by saying that NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair has also supported Alberta's oil sands.
“The NDP wants to have it both ways. Mulcair travels to Alberta to be a partner of the oil sands, then he turns around and opposes it,” she said.
Freeland said the Liberals believe the Keystone pipeline is the most sustainable way to develop and export natural resources. Pollock said the Conservatives and Liberals are on the same page on the issue. “I'm with Justin on this one,” Freeland said. “We believe that Canada needs a way to export its resources in a sustainable way . . . Our natural resources, that’s the hand that God has dealt Canada.”
Meanwhile, Deverell declared his support for carbon taxes on fossil fuels and said none of the major parties have done enough to fight climate change. He said they've instead wasted time bickering about which party supports pipelines.
“Sure we need more jobs, but can we give thought to what those jobs are,” he said. “Put a tax on carbon and remove subsidies for oil and gas.”
Overall, Deverell said, Canadian democracy is in trouble. The current government is plagued by scandal, and the first-past-the-post electoral system leaves voters with little to no control to change it. “We have a phoney majority government with the Harper government," he said. “The Greens are calling for proportional representation.”
Even though the debate was held on Trans Day of Remembrance, the candidates failed to mention the plight of trans Canadians. There were also no questions about Bill C-279, which would amend the Human Rights Act to include gender identity as a prohibited ground of discrimination and is yet to pass.
Debate organizer Arthur Sinclair says he wasn’t aware that the debate was scheduled for the exact same time as the annual ceremony and candlelight vigil at the 519 Church Street Community Centre.
“I wish someone had told me,” he says. “Especially in this riding, that’s an issue that’s rather important.”
The by-election is to replace former Liberal MP Bob Rae. Toronto Centre goes to the polls Nov 25. Read Xtra's interviews with McQuaig, Freeland and Deverell.