By Graeme Bayliss
Chrystia Freeland walks as though she can’t keep pace with her own excitement. Dressed in Grit red, she sashays down the aisle of a Toronto Reference Library auditorium, the last candidate to arrive, flanked by hundreds of supporters and watched by dozens of journalists. On this September afternoon, the author and former senior editor at Thomson Reuters is vying for the Liberal nomination ahead of November’s federal by-election in Toronto Centre. She tells the audience this is the biggest job interview she’s ever faced—but she knows a bigger one lies ahead. There are 90,000 electors in the riding, and Freeland is ready to face them.
A few hours later and a few blocks south, in an overheated hall at the downtown YMCA, Freeland’s likely opponent is roaring through her own speech. Linda McQuaig, author and freelance political columnist, is seeking the NDP nomination. Her booming voice and the din from the audience send shudders through the floor. She inveighs against income inequality and social-spending cuts, and soon the crowd begins to chant her name: “Lin-da! Lin-da! Lin-da!”
That evening, Freeland and McQuaig receive their nominations and become the latest aspirants to carry on a long tradition in Canada of journalists making the leap into politics—of the watchdogs becoming the watched. Their path to Parliament will be different from that taken by Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin, ex-journalists (and now suspended senators) who were appointed, not elected to their posts. But Freeland and McQuaig will come up against the same flashing recorders and the same scratching pens Duffy and Wallin faced amid scandal—and soon they’ll find out what it takes to handle the kinds of questions they spent their careers asking, and become the stories they once told.
Before the media scrutiny, and before the lessons learned through door-knocking and debating and winning and losing, there’s the decision to run. It’s a decision few journalists make lightly, although motives vary from one potential candidate to another.
Some make the leap out of a genuine desire to do good. (“It sounds corny, but I wanted to make a difference,” says Chris Tindal, once a Toronto municipal candidate, twice a federal Green Party candidate and currently Postmedia’s director of project development.)
Others start to believe they can do a better job than the politicians they write about. (“I’ve spent 15 years covering city hall and Queen’s Park,” says Toronto Sun journalist and former provincial Progressive Conservative candidate Sue-Ann Levy, “and I often looked at that cast of characters and thought, ‘Oh my god, I could do this with my eyes closed.’”)
Freeland says she wants to put her economics expertise to work in Parliament. She’s written about finance and the global economy throughout her career, including for theFinancial Times, The Atlantic and The Globe and Mail, where she was deputy editor from 1999 to 2001. In 2012, she wrote the critically lauded Plutocrats, a bestseller about rising income inequality around the world. Now, income inequality and the middle-class squeeze are part of Freeland’s political agenda.
Sitting at the back of her campaign office weeks after her nomination, Freeland looks on confidently as a team of volunteers prepares for a canvassing sortie. The ringing phones and ceaseless chatter call to mind a newsroom, and the sense of continuity this provides illustrates Freeland’s belief that entering politics is a natural step in the evolution of her career. “It wasn’t a rejection of journalism,” she says. “Journalism, and the ideas that I care about—the things I’ve learned in my reporting—brought me here.”
Like Freeland, McQuaig has written extensively about income inequality—most notably in The Trouble with Billionaires, the 2010 book she co-authored—and she, too, believes running for office is a logical next step. In her nomination speech, McQuaig proclaimed, “I’m now ready to move from advocacy to action.” The phrase became one of her campaign slogans, and it encapsulates the reason so many journalists enter partisan politics: they want to bring about change in government, and seek more effective means than journalism to do so.
Jeffrey Dvorkin, director of the University of Toronto Scarborough’s journalism program, says it’s understandable that political reporters—so close to the mechanisms of government and yet unable to manipulate them—want to use their knowledge of the political system to become active participants in it. “I’ve known a number of them who have become frustrated with the limitations of journalism,” he says. “Journalism is often an insufficient response to reality.”
Those limitations led Jennifer Hollett to run against McQuaig for the NDP nomination. Hollett, formerly of CBC and MuchMusic, wanted to be a journalist so she could cast light on social problems and, perhaps, help to correct them. But the job couldn’t fulfill that desire. “In television, you have about a minute, a minute and a half, to do that in a story, and then you’re on to the next story,” she says. “So I wanted to do more, and I wanted to move from asking questions to finding answers.”
Similarly, when former Globe journalist Michael Valpy ran for the federal NDP in the Toronto riding of Trinity-Spadina in 2000, he hoped to correct a social problem: “I wanted to run in a student riding; I wanted to demonstrate to young Canadians that parliamentary politics was still valid.”
Valpy had an interest in street politics and, inspired by the so-called Battle of Seattle, in which tens of thousands of activists staged demonstrations outside a World Trade Organization meeting in autumn 1999, he pitched a story to the now-defunct Elm Street magazine about a similarly themed protest that took place the following summer, when the Organization of American States met in Windsor, Ontario. In his reporting, Valpy spoke to many young activists. He was impressed by their political acuity, but disturbed by their disillusionment. “They had no faith whatsoever in institutional politics—nothing’s changed, eh?—but this really struck me, and I thought so deeply about it that I decided to run.”
Valpy says most people supported his decision, but not all. “I got a much more negative response from my fellow journalists than I did from any other group,” he says. That negativity stems from a belief that reporters who enter partisan politics forfeit the integrity of their work—past, present and future.
In a 2010 paper, the Canadian Association of Journalists attempted to address the ethical issues that arise in seeking public office: “Journalists are not expected or required to take some vow of political chastity when they take up the profession,” the paper states, but it also notes that they “bear the burden of a higher public expectation that they submit personal bias and political view to the demands and disciplines of their work. And perhaps that is exactly as it should be.”
Peter Kent, who spent more than 40 years in journalism before becoming a Conservative member of Parliament, believes the CAJ’s perspective hearkens back to a time when the demarcation between opinion journalism and news reporting was clearer. Kent encourages journalists to run for office, and notes that many have done so over the years. “But I’m surprised that more don’t,” he says, “simply because every day of a journalist’s life—every story a journalist does—deals with public policy in some form or another.”
Valpy, too, believes reporters and editors should be encouraged to run. “The thought that somehow, because we’re journalists, we should insulate ourselves completely from the formal political life of the country is silly.”
It’s late October and Freeland is bouncing like a pinball door-to-door down the 17th-floor hallway of a downtown apartment building. She stops in front of one door and, as she does every time, prepares a smile before knocking. Satisfied that no answer is forthcoming, she slips an information card between the door and its frame. Suddenly, an elderly man emerges from the apartment. “Don’t do that!” he shouts with a jowly wobble as the card falls to the floor. “I’m sorry,” Freeland replies, impishly imitating his voice. But this only makes him angrier. “Get out of here!” he shouts, bending over to push the card away. “Get out of here and take your garbage with you!” It was a small blunder, and Freeland doesn’t have time to be embarrassed—she canvasses the entire building in just over 40 minutes, before moving on to the next. She says door-knocking techniques are like “variations on a recipe,” and she’s still working out her measurements.
The journey from byline to ballot box is full of lessons in electioneering. It teaches journalists what to say and how to say it, when to canvass and how best to position lawn signs. More importantly, the campaign trail forces journalists to adapt to new ways of thinking and behaving, and shows them what of themselves they’ll have to lose if they want a shot at winning.
Valpy received little formal instruction during his campaign (apart from a single elocution lesson from an actress, aimed at correcting his slight sibilance). Most of his training occurred on the doorstep of a sometimes irascible electorate. He says the repetitiveness of door-to-door canvassing compelled him to try out new opening gambits—some more waggish than others.
“Good evening,” he said to one resident. “Vote for me or I’ll have your name taken off the voters list.”
Valpy believed he was talking to an NDP supporter—or at least a voter with a sense of humour—but he was wrong, and he knew it as soon as he saw the man’s jaw drop. It took him five minutes to explain that he was joking.
Later that evening, Valpy consulted his campaign manager, who told him plainly, “No more jokes.”
For much of his campaign, though, he struggled to keep his tongue away from his cheek. (During one doorstep exchange, having run out of things to say, he asked a voter if his dog would be interested in the NDP’s healthcare policy. “As I recall,” Valpy says, “the guy shook his head very seriously and said, ‘No, the dog wouldn’t be.’”) His quirky wit is part of his personality—but such idiosyncrasies are often the first casualties of politicking.
Chris Turner is a journalist and author who, in November 2012, represented the federal Green Party in a Calgary Centre by-election. He anticipated that his personality would be ill-suited to campaigning. “My day job for the last 15 years had been sitting by myself in a room,” he says, “and there’s a reason for that: I’m not an extroverted guy. The glad-handing, schmoozing stuff is not something that comes naturally to me.” Nor does it come naturally to many reporters. “In my experience,” he says, “journalists are, if not introverted, at least very unconventional personalities.” Turner adjusted to being a political participant, rather than an observer—but the change took some getting used to. “I think it’s one of those things where you have no idea how you’re going to handle it until you’re in the middle of it.”
Former BBC correspondent and ex-federal Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff says that, to be a successful politician, “you need to fit a new filter between your brain and your mouth—or you should.” In the 2011 federal election, Ignatieff led the Liberals to their worst-ever showing and failed to win his own riding, but not because he was introverted or given to flippancy. Rather, he was gaffe-prone, which, in politics, simply means he was prone to speaking his mind.
Some journalists, like Turner, say media experience can be a campaign asset. “I know what this reporter’s looking for,” he says. “I know the 30 seconds that they need to fill their spot, and so I know better than to go on and on.” But according to Warren Kinsella, who advised Ignatieff politically from late 2008 to early 2009 (and in 1997 unsuccessfully ran for office himself, in the federal riding of North Vancouver), not all journalists who seek election are so adept at using the media to their advantage. Kinsella has observed politics through many different lenses, as a lawyer, author, political chief of staff and bass player in a punk band called Shit from Hell. He studied journalism at Carleton University before attending law school, and today he writes for the Toronto Sun and The Hill Times. He says journalist-politicians like his former boss have trouble speaking in 10-second sound bites. “It’s like, yeah, sure, I know you want to get all 700 words in there so people can fully appreciate the depth and breadth of your brilliance,” Kinsella says, “but that’s just not how it fucking works.” He rejects Freeland’s and McQuaig’s claims about the naturalness of the transition from journalism to politics. “I think they’re both full of shit,” he says. “This is not a natural evolution; it is totally, totally different.”
Tindal says talking to the media is like standing at a gap, with reality under your feet and a snappy sound bite on the other side. “You know what people want to hear,” he says, “and you know what your truth is, and you have to find that sweet spot in the middle where you can tell them what you want to say in a way that they’ll be receptive to.”
Levy echoes Kinsella’s opinion of Freeland’s and McQuaig’s evolution: “They are full of shit,” she says. She found her 2009 provincial by-election run difficult, often having to keep her controversial opinions to herself. “I think I had a lot of ruts on my tongue by the end of the 35 days.”
By the end of a televised all-candidates debate, it’s hard to imagine McQuaig has any ruts on hers. She looks frustrated and frequently interrupts her opponents. During a disagreement over Quebec sovereignty, McQuaig finds herself sparring with Freeland (who until recently lived in New York) and struggling to make herself heard. “Listen,” she bristles, even as moderator Steve Paikin tries to rein her in, “I’m not going to take lecturing from someone who hasn’t even been in the country, to talk to me about how important it is to keep a country together.”
Before the campaign had begun in earnest, McQuaig was emphatic: “I didn’t get into politics to become namby-pamby and middle-of-the-road and filter out everything interesting and important.” But on this occasion, she gave her opponents the opportunity to appear scandalized, and Freeland evidence to back her claim that the NDP was running a negative campaign.
Valpy rarely felt the sting of a bitten tongue during his campaign—but he soon came to fear the sting of the party whip. It’s a concept fundamental to the Westminster system of governance, and fundamentally in conflict with Valpy’s journalistic instincts. It was something he hadn’t considered before running for office, but as his campaign forged onward, he began to realize that some of his political ideas weren’t in line with NDP ideology. “There were things that were party policy that I could see myself having difficulty with,” he says. Valpy is a staunch supporter of the monarchy, for example, while the NDP is not.
He began to wonder what would happen if the subject came up in caucus. “Could I shut up, or would I have to publicly disagree with my party? Would I have to publicly disagree with my leader?” he asks. “I mean, those things sat on my mind.”
McQuaig faces a similar challenge. For years, she’s advocated higher taxes for the wealthy. In The Trouble with Billionaires, she proposes overhauling income taxes to introduce “a new rate of 60 percent to be applied to income above $500,000, and a new top rate of 70 percent for income above $2.5 million.” But personal tax increases are not part of the NDP’s platform.
As recently as her nomination speech, McQuaig railed against “tax cuts for the rich,” yet she insists she fully supports the NDP’s policies. When speaking with constituents about income inequality, she mentions that she’s written on the topic, but without providing specifics; she says the NDP is committed to addressing the problem, but never quite explains how. When pressed on the matter during a debate, she could only express her support for a more progressive tax system.
Although journalist-politicians learn much from the campaign, some discoveries can be made only after the ballots have been counted. On election night, November 27, 2000, Valpy sat in his office with campaign worker Bob Gallagher—just the two of them, he recalls, like a scene from The Candidate. About 30 minutes after the polls closed, the phone rang. Gallagher took the call. He listened silently, replaced the receiver, made a few calculations and turned to Valpy: “We’re not going to make it.”
They sat for a moment, looking eye-to-eye, and then shrugged. In the end, Valpy was relieved not to win. “I was uncomfortable with the idea of sitting in a caucus,” he says. “I’m just too independent.”
Kent has had no difficulty submitting to the party whip since he was elected in 2008; he says it’s just what good politicians do. “Everybody has to toe the line on common expressions of policy,” he contends. “That is the reality, and the most disciplined parties are the most effective parties.”
But party discipline has led Kent to contradict his own journalistic work. In a 1984 documentary called The Greenhouse Effect and Planet Earth, produced for CBC’s The Journal, Kent said, “The greenhouse gas effect must be considered as the world’s greatest environmental concern.” Yet, as minister of the environment (a job he held from 2011 to 2013) he vociferously supported the development of Alberta’s oil sands—one of the Conservative government’s economic priorities—in spite of its demonstrable contribution to the greenhouse effect.
Party discipline is something nearly all journalist-politicians must face, especially if they are elected. But there are lessons to be learned in losing, too. Turner says people who disagree with his politics sometimes invoke his former candidacy as a means of impugning his journalistic integrity. “The people who come at me now,” he says, “and try to dismiss me as ‘just that Green guy’ are doing that to dismiss the facts I’m reporting.”
Partisan politics gave him a fuller understanding not just of how campaigns are run, but also of Canadian democracy itself. It’s an understanding he may never have achieved as a journalist. “You have a much clearer sense of why elections go the way they do, what leads voters to vote one way or the other,” he says. Talking to so many people on the campaign trail gave him a better read on the electorate: “Where are they at? What are their concerns? How do they think about politics?”
Valpy, too, says his brief political foray gave him a closer look at politics, and from a new perspective. “It was a different world out there. Encountering people as me, as Michael Valpy, as opposed to encountering people as a Globe and Mail journalist—it was a very different experience,” he explains. “And that part was exhilarating.”
Looking back, he says his five-week campaign was life-changing. “I’d had a taste of a different persona, of me as a different person,” he says. The change was refreshing: “I realized that I was getting tired of the old person—of the person who’d been a journalist for more than 30 years.”
On election night, November 25, 2013, hundreds of Liberal supporters gather at a restaurant in downtown Toronto. They watch as the NDP’s early lead disappears; they cheer as McQuaig concedes defeat. They chant as their new MP enters the room: “Free-land! Free-land! Free-land!”
She’s sworn in to Parliament on December 9; her transition from journalist to elected official is complete. But a month later, she tells me she’s determined to adapt her journalistic skills to the House of Commons. “What I found to be at the core of journalism—which is the learning and the asking questions,” she says, “that’s something I’m going to keep on reminding myself to continue to do.”
As I begin to ask my last question, though, Freeland cuts me off—something Justin Trudeau advised her to do should an interview with a reporter run long. “He said, ‘You’re a journalist and you love journalists, so you’ll always say, okay, one more question.’ But he said it’s always a mistake, so answer the last question and say, ‘Thank you very much’—and I will say that.”
And she did.