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Freeland Taps Middle Class Angst in Battle for Parliament

Canadian Journalist Chrystia Freeland
Chrystia Freeland, candidate for the Liberal Party of Canada, stands for a photograph in Toronto. Photographer: Galit Rodan/Bloomberg

Canadian journalist Chrystia Freeland wants to practice what she’s preached, and in the process help revive the once mighty Liberal Party of Canada.

The former Thomson Reuters Corp. editor and author of the award-winning “Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else” is taking the message of middle class angst and rising income inequality to the streets of downtown Toronto where she is running as a Liberal candidate in a by-election this month.

“Figuring out how to make the world economy work for the western middle class is the big social and political challenge for all of us,” Freeland said in an interview ahead of the Nov. 25 vote to fill a vacant seat in Canada’s House of Commons. “I felt it was kind of, for me personally, morally, the right thing to try to do.”

Her views on the emergence of the “global super elite” and the squeezed middle class have dovetailed with those of new Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, 41, who is trying to stem a decade-long decline in support for his party by using the issue as an anchor to forge a more popular agenda.

Freeland and Trudeau, both raised in political families, met at one of her book launches in Toronto last year, she said. The son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau later asked her to seek the Liberal candidacy in the Toronto Centre riding that was vacated when former Liberal Leader Bob Rae stepped down. He also appointed her co-chair of the party’s council of economic advisors.

The riding in the city’s eastern edge of downtown includes some of the income extremes that Freeland is trying to address. The district covers Rosedale, one of Canada’s richest neighborhoods, where Gerald Schwartz, chief executive officer of private equity firm Onex Corp., lives. It also covers Regent Park, one of the country’s largest social housing developments.

Governing Party

The Liberals, once dubbed Canada’s natural governing party because of their electoral success last century, fought the last two elections on policy issues such as parliamentary reform and climate change that failed to gain traction with voters. They have also lost ground to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives as the party most trusted to manage the economy. The next federal election is slated for 2015.

Fueling losses for the Liberals have been efforts by the Conservatives to win over suburban voters and the urban working poor largely through a series of targeted tax breaks such as deductions on employment earnings for low-income earners, and increased deductions for children.

The Liberals, who won two out of every three elections between 1896 and 2004, fell to third place in the 2011 vote for the first time.

“I always have been a liberal in the Canadian political context,” Freeland, 45, said in the interview at Bloomberg’s office in Toronto.

Middle Class

At the event to launch her campaign on Oct. 2, Trudeau said that, like Freeland, he champions the idea that “prosperity needed to be accessible to Canada’s middle class.”

“It just so happened my concerns resonated” with Trudeau, said Freeland, who left her New York posting as managing director and editor for consumer news at Thomson Reuters to seek public office in Canada.

She worked at the Financial Times as U.S. managing editor before joining Reuters in 2010, and previously worked at Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper.

“Justin put this middle-class issue at the center of the agenda,” she said.

Freeland, who studied history and literature at Harvard University and attended the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, said she doesn’t have the “arrogance” to make specific policy prescriptions, citing broadly the need to reduce the cost of university education, leverage the nation’s social safety net to attract businesses and incubate entrepreneurship.

Attended Davos

“For me the issue is how do you grow the economy from the middle out,” said Freeland, who was a participant at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos last January.

She’s more definitive on the environment, claiming Harper’s mishandling of the issue has put the economy in danger.

Harper’s “hostility” toward environmental issues is jeopardizing the country’s ability to develop its natural resources, said Freeland, who was born in Peace River, a town of a few thousand people in northwestern Alberta.

He “has put the Canadian energy sector at risk unnecessarily,” said Freeland, citing the controversy in the U.S. over the Keystone XL pipeline proposed by TransCanada Corp. “It’s a real irony because you would think that this Conservative government would be the best defender of the natural resource part of our economy internationally.”

NDP Opponent

Freeland’s campaign will be one of the first tests of Trudeau’s leadership. The Toronto Centre vote is among four by-elections scheduled for Nov. 25.

She is running in a district that has been Liberal since 1993. Her main opponent, Linda McQuaig, is a former columnist for the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest selling newspaper, who is running for the left-leaning New Democratic Party. The Conservative Party candidate is Geoff Pollock.

If she wins, Freeland would be the first woman to represent the riding, which was formed in 2003, or its predecessor Rosedale. About one-quarter of Canada’s federal parliamentarians are women, ranking it 47th globally, according to data compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

“I’m a real feminist,” Freeland said. “It’s important for women to break through the glass ceiling in all parts of human activity.”

Freeland’s parents, both lawyers, were involved in politics. Her mother, Halyna Chomiak Freeland, ran for the New Democratic Party in 1988 federal elections in Edmonton, placing second. Her father, Donald, ran in provincial Alberta elections for the Liberals.

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