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Linda McQuaig, left, and Chrystia Freeland are facing off in the Toronto Centre riding.The Globe and Mail

They are both highly educated, extremely articulate, strong-minded women who are vying to win the fight for the key federal riding of Toronto Centre, a seat recently vacated by Bob Rae.

Liberal candidate Chrystia Freeland and NDP candidate Linda McQuaig were nominated this week, and both are hoping to woo voters by targeting the ever-increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots in this economically disparate riding, which includes some of the country's super-rich (in posh Rosedale) and its most downtrodden (in Regent Park and St. Jamestown).

They are rivals who share many things in common. They are both former journalists – Ms. Freeland was deputy editor at The Globe and Mail before becoming a managing editor at Thomson Reuters; Ms. McQuaig has been a regular columnist for the Toronto Star and the National Post. And they have both tackled the hot-button topic of income inequality in their books – Ms. Freeland authored last year's Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else and Ms. McQuaig's The Trouble With Billionaires: How the Super-Rich Hijacked the World and How We Can Take It Back was published in 2011. Both women have built political platforms on the need to rectify income inequality, but they've yet to debate publicly on how best to do that. They tell The Globe how they would fix the middle-class pinch in Toronto Centre.

What issues are the crux of your agenda as it pertains to income inequality?
Chrystia Freeland:
The really big issue is the middle-class squeeze. In Western developed economies, incomes at the top are pulling away while incomes at the middle and lower ends are stagnating. Most people feel it in our lives, whether in mid-career and suddenly feeling less secure, or graduates with good degrees who can't get jobs, or seniors feeling they can't retire. We have to figure out how to retool our political and social policies and institutions to take account of the new way the economy is working.

Linda McQuaig: Sixty-six per cent of the residents in Toronto Centre are renters, which is double the national average. Rents are going crazy in downtown Toronto so it's created an absolute affordable housing crisis in my riding, as well as others. Currently, 87,000 household units in downtown Toronto are on the list for subsidized housing. Poverty, and particularly homelessness, is a dire problem in Toronto Centre. We need a comprehensive national housing strategy.

Does income inequality concern you in Toronto Centre and how do you plan to address it?
Ms. Freeland:
Toronto Centre is, in many ways, a microcosm of Canada, even a microcosm of the world. During the nomination campaign, people kept coming back to three big-picture issues: the middle class squeeze and how do you make the 21st century economy work; the democracy deficit (many people spoke to me about implementing compulsory voting like in Australia); and their concern over Canada's diminished role as a world player.

Ms. McQuaig: Inequality in Toronto Centre is on display in steroids. I plan to fight for badly needed federal funding for affordable housing; to restore the $16-million for the homeless that the Harper government shamefully took out of the Homeless Partnering Strategy; to fight for changes to the Employment Insurance program so that benefits cover far more of the unemployed; to strengthen retirement incomes; reverse Harper's raising of the retirement age to 67; and push the federal government to assist the provinces in lowering student tuition fees.

How as an MP, will you navigate a riding so economically diverse as Toronto Centre, with uber-wealthy pockets such as Rosedale juxtaposed to Regent Park?
Ms. Freeland:
I'm not an MP. Right now, I'm the Liberal candidate and I'm going to work as hard as I can to talk to as many residents of Toronto Centre as possible. What I strongly believe, as does [Liberal Leader] Justin [Trudeau], is that we need an approach that unites, not divides. The big problem of the squeezed middle class is something that people in affluent neighbourhoods such as Rosedale know is an issue, although they might not feel its impact as acutely as in Regent Park. But these are shared concerns, and workable solutions will require buy-in from people who are the winners in the new economy, as well as those who are being squeezed.

Ms. McQuaig: All the income gains in the past 30 years have gone to the top 10 per cent of Canadians, and 60 per cent has gone to the top 1 per cent. I would represent everybody but my focus of concern is people who have been ground down under favour-the-wealthy policies of the past three decades.

What political decisions in Canada helped to create the "super elite"? And how does Canada stack up compared to other countries?
Ms. Freeland:
Globalization and the technological revolution are very significant drivers of the middle-class squeeze. You see the same trends pretty much everywhere [in the world] but political policies can either exacerbate the trend or soften it. Banking regulation in Canada has softened the inequality trend here and has had a dual effect of not leading to the total pull-away incomes at the very top [unlike in the U.S.] Crucially, the Canadian middle class didn't have the banking crisis with the huge devastation that occured south of the border. On the other hand, Germany is a country that has done a better job of keeping its middle class prosperous by offering effective education and job-focused training. Traditional jobs are going away and Canada needs to focus on becoming more productive. We need to do our best, from a policy perspective, to make our soil the most fertile for new jobs to appear.

Ms. McQuaig: A very specific set of political decisions have created the super-elite. Since the eighties, governments in Canada have adopted Thatcherism, Reaganism, and a neo-Liberalism agenda that pushed tax cuts for the rich, social spending cuts, banking deregulation, and a tax on labour. The U.S. has adopted this agenda even more extremely but we're close behind them. In her book, Chrystia suggests this is a global phenomenon. That's not actually true. There's a huge difference between what's going on in the Anglo-American countries and other countries of the advanced world such as France, Germany and Scandanavia, which are nowhere near our level of inequality.

Who is the most visionary, transformative person you've met in your riding?
Ms. Freeland:
There are several but I'll give a shout-out to Spiros Papathanasakis, who is doing great work as executive director of the Cabbagetown Youth Centre. Also, Ray Hobin's organization, Jamii, is organizing arts-based, community-engaged projects in The Esplanade. There is also a very small, but spirited community, the Chechens of Regent Park, who have built a great community centre. And Don Tapscott, who's long had an understanding of how the economy is changing.

Ms. McQuaig: Toronto Centre-Rosedale councillor Pam McConnell has done exciting work in the redevelopment of Regent Park, while still protecting and expanding affordable housing. Fred Hahn, the Ontario president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, has been a huge activist in the Church-Wellesley Village, spearheading progressive policies to help working people.

Who is Canada's best billionaire (from a civic-minded perspective)? Who is the worst?
Ms. Freeland:
I'm not going to divide Canadian billionaires into black and white sheep. But we're lucky to have a lot of very civic-minded business people supporting Toronto Centre universities, sport and artistic institutions.

Ms. McQuaig: I don't know any billionaires personally, unlike Chrystia who I think has hung out with quite a few. A good billionaire might be someone like philanthropist/entrepreneur Jeff Skoll, who has donated millions to "social entrepreneurship." The worst billionaire? I don't know if I want to go there.

Did Occupy Wall Street fail?
Ms. Freeland:
It didn't fail. It had a lot of impact in terms of shifting the terms of the inequality debate. It played a big role in drawing our attention to the middle-class squeeze, and showing people are angry about it.

Ms. McQuaig: It didn't fail at all. Until Occupy came along the issue of inequality was not on the horizon. I still don't know quite how they did it. It seemed like a genuine, spontaneous thing that happened out of an incoherent mass of people coming together. What emerged was an incredibly powerful message that the 1 per cent have too much wealth which is bad for the 99 per cent.

Why are middle-class Canadians often more outraged by welfare recipients than by bankers/financiers who get multi-million-dollar payouts or salaries?
Ms. Freeland:
I'm not sure they are. If you're a person concerned about the squeezed middle class, and a person who thinks part of the answer comes from public policy, one of the things you have be sure is that your government is really delivering value for money. If you want government to be part of the answer, you have to understand the middle class is actually concerned about paying for that government. One of the consequences of the big economic change we're living through is that parts of the private sector have been transformed more quickly than the public sector. Sometimes our experience as consumers is more rewarding than our experience as citizens. To have a popular mandate for government to act, government has to persuade people that their experience as citizens can be as terrific as their experience as consumers.

Ms. McQuaig: I think ordinary Canadians are far more outraged by bankers/financiers' huge paycheques than they are by welfare recipients. It's one of those urban legends that the media perpetuates. People feel the system is incredibly unfair. Top CEOs used to make an income roughly 25 times what the average Canadian worker made. Today, it's about 250 times. That's outrageous.

Have you come across the subject of income equality in the drawing rooms of Rosedale? Is it a topic the rich are mulling over, or is it taboo?

Ms. Freeland: It's a topic the rich are very much mulling over. They're really concerned, as they should be. The 1 per cent and the 0.1 per cent are not going to be able to continue to prosper for long when the squeezed middle class can't buy the things that entrepreneurs and business people produce. No one in Toronto Centre wants our society to devolve into 1980s-style Latin America with gated communities, with the super-rich separated from the ragged masses.

Ms. McQuaig: I haven't been in all the drawing rooms of Rosedale, however I've found them very engaged in the issue, and very concerned. My sense is there is this small group of wealthy people and corporations that have pushed hard to put an agenda in place that has so favoured the wealthy, so extremely. Broadly, there's recognition that things have gone too far.

What politician do you most admire?

Ms. Freeland: I have to start with Justin Trudeau [who last week appointed Ms. Freeland as co-chair of the party's economic council of advisers]. He is inspiring to me, and I think all Liberals in Canada. He has the courage to be earnest about politics, and to say 'you know what, let's take the high road and talk about a positive vision.' Another person all Canadians owe a lot to is Paul Martin who put so many of the economic foundations in place leading to Canada's relative success in the past decade, both in terms of bank regulations and the budget deficit.

Ms. McQuaig: [The NDP's first leader and founder of universal health care] Tommy Douglas. As for a live one, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair. He's taking on the Harper government. He's showing real toughness. I respect how he went after Harper on the Nigel Wright affair and humbled him.

If you were a billionaire, where would you focus your philanthropy?

Ms. Freeland: I'd spend a lot on aboriginal education, which is such a neglected and festering issue that all Canadians should feel a huge sense of personal responsibility around. I would also improve education for the underprivileged kids in Toronto Centre.

Ms. McQuaig: I'd focus on measures specifically aimed at helping the poor. I have a real problem with how we're allowing philanthropy to replace tax revenue as a key source for funding public institutions such as universities and hospitals. The rich tend to give money to their favourite causes – to their alma maters, private schools, their favourite disease – and that's fine. But other areas are sorely neglected. You see names of philanthropists on our hospitals and universities, but do you see them on community centres in the poor parts of town?

Have you read each other's books?

Ms. Freeland: I'm afraid I haven't. It's on my reading list. But Linda is a terrific, stimulating writer, and I congratulate her on winning a tough nomination.

Ms. McQuaig: I have read her book and we agree in terms of recognizing the rampant extent of income inequality. That's where my agreement ends. Chrystia tends to see this dramatic rise in inequality as inevitable, as a sort of byproduct of progress and the global economy. To do her research, she shadowed some of the world's wealthiest people so she looks at the issue of income inequality through their prism. The reason we have this dramatic rise is not a mystery. It's a specific set of policies that were devised to protect the ones at the top and create insecurity for those lower down. We've had this agenda for 30 years. It's picked up speed, and moved into full-scale financial crisis in 2008. I'm not against capitalism. I'm against unbridled capitalism.

Are we threatened as a meaningful democracy here in Canada?

Ms. Freeland: Yes, I worry from two perspectives. A surprising number of people in Toronto Centre feel that, institutionally and structurally, Canada has become less democratic in recent years. Democracy is also imperilled by the middle-class squeeze. You can't have an effective mass democracy when the middle is being hollowed out.

Ms. McQuaig: We're extremely threatened. And democracy will be more threatened if we allow income inequality to thrive. The more concentrated economic power is, the more concentrated political power is. We can have democracy or we can have great concentrations of wealthy. We can't have both.

The super-rich now are mostly self-made, and they use that as an argument in their defence of the disparity. Does that make the inequality any easier to swallow?

Ms. Freeland: It's a complicated balance to strike. There is a group of people who say there is not a problem at all. Don't worry about it. Then there's a group who want to throw the baby out with the bath water, and be in denial about the source of economic growth in the 21st century. That's why this is a genuinely naughty problem. We need to embrace globalization and technological revolution. Canadians are smart, and they understand what's going on. They understand it's a different economy than their parents', and they understand there are no pat answers.

Ms. McQuaig: The assumption that the super-rich are mostly self-made is something the super-rich like to put forward. It's true there are fewer people inheriting big fortunes and living off that, but let's not imply that's gone away. The majority of the super-rich are in fact people who have made their money in the financial sector or at the top of corporations. There are hedgefund managers making over $1-billion a year. That's insane. There is not a shred of evidence that the financial elite in the early postwar period was any less hard-working than today's super-elite, but they made a fraction of what today's elite are making. Today's elite has control of the rules and they've shaped them to serve their own interests.

If elected, how will you work with Toronto Mayor Rob Ford?

Ms. Freeland: I'm not going to do hypothetical. My focus right now is on meeting as many voters in Toronto Centre as possible and trying to persuade them that I'm their strongest representative and that the Liberal party is their best choice.

Ms. McQuaig: He's the mayor so I would work as hard as I could to establish a good relationship with him. Obviously there would be differences in some of our approaches to things, but I'm not against working with people of different attitudes. I fully expect to have an excellent working relationship with Mayor Olivia Chow.