Canadian Dimension Interviews Linda McQuaig

When Linda McQuaig, well-known author and Toronto Star columnist, announced that she is vying to be the New Democratic Party candidate in the Toronto Centre byelection, CD contacted her for an interview. The interview, by CD editors Cy Gonick and Andrea Levy, was conducted on the phone and transcribed.

Canadian Dimension: What are you reading at the moment – other than Canadian Dimension that is?

Linda McQuaig: Well, I have to confess I’m reading Plutocrats by Chrystia Freeland. I’m also reading The Hour of Peril about the secret plot to murder Lincoln before the Civil War, and I just finished the novel Mount Pleasant by Don Gillmor.

What did you think of Freeland’s book?**

LM: Well I haven’t finished it yet, but let me just say that although she and I have both written about billionaires and the rise in inequality, we have very different takes on the causes and very different ideas on what should be done about it.

Your views and proposals on a wide range of policy issues, published in books and articles over several decades, are clearly and significantly to the left of the NDP and especially its current leader. How do you reconcile the obvious contradictions?

The positions I’ve taken in my books and my columns, which I stand by fully, have to do with making this a more equal and inclusive country and getting rid of the right-wing economic policies of the Liberals and the Conservatives. I’ve looked at the NDP policy book and I find myself broadly in agreement with it. For instance, we both want a more progressive tax system, even if we don’t necessarily agree on the specifics. And one of the things I would want to do is be a progressive voice in the caucus because these things are worked out collectively.

Thomas Mulcair is on record opposing any tax increase. This flies in the face of everything you stand for. You said that you favour a “tax and spend” policy with new tax revenues being used to greatly expand the welfare state, similar to the policies adopted in the Scandinavian countries over several decades. You argue for a 60% tax on incomes over $500,000 and 70% on incomes above $2.5 million. Doesn’t that put you far out of step with NDP policy?

The NDP explicitly endorses a progressive tax system. On the specifics of how such a system would work, they emphasize the corporate side, while I have emphasized the personal side, as in the recent book I co-authored with Neil Brooks [Billionaires’ Ball: Gluttony and Hubris in an Age of Epic Inequality (Beacon Press, 2012)]. But we all want a more progressive tax system where the burden which has been greatly alleviated for the people at the upper end, is placed back upon those people I recognize that there is some disparity between how I and the NDP, and Tom Mulcair more specifically, see making the tax system more progressive, but that’s a matter of details. Obviously, Tom Mulcair is setting the policy for the NDP. I’m just one person running for an NDP nomination. Obviously, I have very strong views on how the tax system should work and should I get elected I would advocate them within the caucus.

I recall talking to Jack Layton about this. A couple of years ago, I was keynote speaker at a CCPA conference and Layton was there. I was arguing for bringing back the inheritance tax in Canada. I was talking with him afterwards and he was saying, “No, no. We tried that and it didn’t work.” Well, I don’t think the NDP did really try it. In any event, Jack and I got into a friendly exchange about the inheritance tax and his response was, “Well, why don’t you run for the NDP?”

Under the Harper regime, Canada has steadily increased its dependence on energy exports. And the Canadian economy is as dependent now on resource and energy exports as it has ever been. As part of an NDP government, what would you do to mitigate or reverse that trend?

I think it’s bad policy, and it has all kinds of adverse consequences. First of all, it does absolutely nothing to address the catastrophic problem of global warming. How you can just charge full steam ahead with the development of the oil sands, when we are facing a crisis with respect to the sustainability of human life on the planet? We’re just going in a completely wrong-headed direction. Certainly there has got to be a kind of pause and a rethinking about the pace of development and how we can get our greenhouse gas emissions more under control. Overall, there has to be a shift to a green economy. Rather than seeing that as something devastating for the economy, it is in fact a tremendous growth opportunity.

In an interview with James Strecker, you called climate change “one of the most pressing issues facing the planet—if not the most pressing.” James Hansen has warned that the Canadian tar sands make climate change an unsolvable problem. Mulcair is on record supporting a west-east pipeline which will obviously spur tar sands development. Does the party’s waffling on this issue worry you? What is your position on the tar sands?

My own position on the tar sands is, as I said, that we have to slow down. I personally think we need some kind of moratorium on further development until we can figure out a strategy for addressing climate change and pivoting to a green economy. As I understand it, the NDP is saying that they will only support the east-west pipeline to the extent that it passes environmental approval. If I am elected, I will be a strong advocate within the NDP caucus for a sustainable energy policy.

Your writing on Canadian economic policy points to the centrality of banks in shaping that policy. At the NDP’s 50th anniversary convention in 2011, Ian Capstick, former press secretary for Jack Layton, said, “We do not believe in a nationalization of oil companies and banks. Not anymore.” What are your thoughts on that?

I don’t know if that’s the party’s position, but I suspect it is. There hasn’t been a push to nationalize banks or oil companies that I’ve seen. As for my personal views, I would just say, in general, that when we had Petro-Canada as a publicly-owned oil company, I saw a lot of merit in that. There were all kinds of political problems with the way it was done, but in principle, the idea of a publicly-owned oil company, even the idea of having one publicly-owned bank—has merit. However, I’m going to be focusing on goals that are much more immediate and much more achievable within the Canadian political context.

What are your perceptions of and reactions to Idle No More and other indigenous resistance movements across the country?

I think it’s a positive development because it has empowered First Nations people. It has given young people within First Nations communities a sense of hope, a sense of mobilizing, and a sense of their own importance. In the same way, I was impressed with the rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement as a kind of protest movement of young people expressing the extent of their disapproval, frustration and anger over the dramatic increase in inequality. I think we don’t want a situation where people are ground down and simply accept that things are hopeless and the rules are increasingly stacked against them—as the rules are. We want to see people asserting their rights and realizing that a better world is possible, and organizing to achieve that.

As you know, Canadian Dimension has long been fiercely critical of the NDP and its diluted reformism, all the more so now when the economic and ecological crises are spiraling out of control. We feel the NDP is simply not up to the challenges facing the country. You’ve written that the remedy to the problems that we face is ultimately going to involve “changing the way we live in some fundamental way.” How would you propose to move the party towards a platform more in line with that aim?

Again, I’m just one voice, but I would use it to speak out on these issues within the caucus. I think it’s very easy to be cynical about politics and frustrated that we don’t get the kind of change that we want from the political system. But there’s a huge role to play for activists and writers and labour and all kinds of groups to create the public awareness and the public debate that will push political leaders to act. Ultimately, it is politicians who have to act and put in place laws that will change things. I think getting inside the political process and standing up for positions that I believe in and ideas that I think are vital to the welfare and the very survival of Canada and the world is just a logical and reasonable thing to do.

Why did you choose Toronto Centre and what promises to be a very tough by-election over a potentially more easily winnable seat?

Well first of all, I have lived in Toronto Centre for 13 years. Bob Rae happened to resign, so there was an opening here. I’ve always been interested in potentially entering politics, but I’ve always loved what I was doing as a writer, critic and advocate, so it wasn’t as though I was desperate to get into politics. But when this situation presented itself I became intrigued with the possibility, especially since this is a particularly exciting moment in Canadian politics. The NDP is actually the Official Opposition with an excellent chance of forming the next government, as I think Harper increasingly is losing support even among his base.

As for the riding being a very difficult one to win for the NDP, I guess that stimulated my interest in some way. I have been a journalist all my life, so I kind of have to prove myself to the party. Rather than contesting a more easily winnable seat, why not go for a very difficult seat and hopefully try to win it for the NDP?

What can the NDP do to reach out to the ever-rising ranks of disaffected voters, many of them young people, who are inclined to stay home on Election Day?

That’s the key question because I think the polling shows that on most issues Canadians are generally more in line with the NDP than they are with other parties. But a lot of people don’t vote. And I think the strategy that the NDP should be considering is to concentrate on taking principled positions that might even go against the mainstream media consensus about what’s possible—the idea for instance that we have to have austerity or that deficit reduction should be our top priority. I think the more the NDP stands up to that and emphasizes that we need public investment, strong social programs and a focus on job creation, the more likely it is we can reach those people who aren’t voting. My feeling is that the more progressives really stand firm and speak out assertively and articulately for policy choices that are actually in the public interest, the better chance we have of reaching people who have become disillusioned and don’t see any point in voting.

Your Liberal Party opponent, Chrystia Freeland, has waxed enthusiastic about the virtues of capitalism or at least what she calls “good capitalism.” Do you share her ardour? And how would you define “good capitalism”?

In our book, Neil Brooks and I talk about the early post-war period being referred to as the “Golden Age of Capitalism” because it’s a kind of market economy based on private ownership, but there is intervention by government that prevents all the money from going to the top, and all the decisions being made at the top. There was a much wider distribution of economic gains in that early post-war period, that Golden Age of Capitalism, from 1940-1980. Another way to describe that type of capitalism is that it is capitalism with a social contract between capital and labour in which labour is able to share much more widely in the benefits of economic growth. I have no problem with capitalism when there are controls on it to ensure that it serves the general public and not just the interests of the corporate elite.

This interview was recorded on September 3, 2013.