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Moderator John Tory introduces the candidates for the Toronto Centre by-election at a debate at Jarvis Collegiate on Nov. 20, 2013. The candidates are, from left: Conservative Geoff Pollack, the NDP’s Linda McQuaig, Liberal Chrystia Freeland and the Green Party’s John Deverell.PHILIP CHEUNG/The Globe and Mail

Front-running Toronto-Centre candidates Linda McQuaig and Chrystia Freeland focused on income inequality and the plight of the middle class as they faced off in a debate on Wednesday night.

Both candidates, journalists and authors of books on inequality, favoured similar policies, including a housing strategy, transit investment and strengthening the Canada Pension Plan to bolster retirement savings.

Ms. McQuaig, running in the Nov. 25 by-election for the New Democrats, emphasized her vision of a government that takes a bigger role in stimulating economic growth through spending.

"There's been far too much focus on austerity and not nearly enough on job creation," Ms. McQuaig said. "When business won't invest, government must."

She criticized the Liberals and Conservatives for focusing on corporate tax cuts at a time when former central bank governor Mark Carney accused businesses of sitting on billions of dollars.

Ms. Freeland, the Liberal candidate, clashed with her chief rival over the interpretation of the ideas of economist John Maynard Keynes. Ms. Freeland said Ms. McQuaig, if she was true to Mr. Keynes' view of stimulus, would not favour a corporate tax increase at a time of low economic growth.

Ms. Freeland said it would be worthwhile to encourage the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board to put money into infrastructure projects in Canada.

"Let's invest some of our own money on our own infrastructure. Lord knows Toronto needs it," Ms. Freeland said.

Conservative candidate Geoff Pollock touted the government's economic record as the most impressive among the G7 group of industrialized nations. Green candidate John Deverell, another journalist, drew applause for his critique of the first-past-the-post electoral system. About half of all votes cast are not represented in Parliament, he said.

"Half of you are casting placebo ballots," Mr. Deverell said.

The liveliest exchanges concerned housing policy. Both Ms. Freeland and Ms. McQuaig said they favoured a national strategy. Ms. McQuaig took the opportunity to attack the Liberals.

"We had a really effective national housing program in Canada. It was admired all over the world," Ms. McQuaig said, turning to Ms. Freeland. "It was killed in the 1995 budget of Paul Martin, whom you keep praising. … Do you think that was the right thing?"

"None of us is going to vote on what happened in 1995," Ms. Freeland replied. She said she is proud to stand alongside Mr. Martin, who made difficult choices in 1995 that contributed to Canada's relative economic health during the financial crisis. Mr. Pollock also expressed admiration for Mr. Martin.

"Once again, the Conservatives and Liberals agree on the greatness of Paul Martin," Ms. McQuaig quipped.

She also drew loud applause for a shot at the Conservatives for being "tough on some crime" while playing down allegations of wrongdoing swirling around the Prime Minister's Office.

The debate was held before a packed auditorium at Jarvis Collegiate. The event was delayed by about a half hour after candidate John Turmel, who was not invited to this debate of the four major parties, disrupted proceedings. Organizers called police to have Mr. Turmel removed.

The by-election is to replace former Liberal MP Bob Rae.

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