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Chrystia Freeland: Lady in Liberal-Party Red

Chrystia Freeland: Lady in Liberal-Party Red

By Pooja Bhatia

Liberal candidate for Toronto Centre Chrystia Freeland celebrates her by-election win in Toronto Centre on November 25, 2013.
SourceCarlos Osorio/Toronto Star


A self-described capitalist, red in tooth and claw, wants to shape a New New Deal in Canada. 

Pooja Bhatia

Pooja Bhatia

Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.

Last June, Chrystia Freeland, lifelong journalist and darling of the global intelligentsia, donned her headset and a long-sleeved red dress and took the stage at TED to tell the world her worries. Income inequality was rising. The middle class was hollowing out. Meritocracy looked ever more aristocratic, with advantages conferred by birth instead of earned with talent and hard work.

She’d already detailed these dilemmas in her 2012 bestseller, Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, but at the end of the TED talk, Freeland struck a newly prescriptive note. “We need a New New Deal,” she announced.

Not two months later, Freeland jumped at the chance to shape that deal. Bye-bye, two decades of journalism. Hello, politics.

Meet the newly anointed star of Canada’s Liberal Party. Freeland, 45, became a member of parliament in November and is already writing the Liberal Party’s economic agenda. She’s widely assumed to be gunning — or groomed for — a cabinet post, and probably something bigger down the line.

It’s unclear what Freeland’s New New Deal might look like. But when it comes to the meritocratic plutocracy, Freeland knows whereof she speaks. The daughter of lawyers, Freeland grew up in the prairies of Alberta. Then came the obligatory stops on the super-achiever highway: Harvard, where she studied Russian history and literature, and then Oxford, as a Rhodes scholar.

Chrystia Freeland sitting on right facing left of frame with Governor in background towards left looking at her

Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney (L) is interviewed by Chrystia Freeland, at the National Press Club in Washington April 18, 2013.

Source Getty

After that, she reported on oligarchs in the former Soviet Union and plutocrats everywhere else, and held a series of increasingly powerful perches at the Financial Times , Toronto-based Globe & Mail and Thomson Reuters . Her charisma and smarts attracted corporate resources and inspired the faith of ink-stained groupies around the world — including Pulitzer winners — who flooded her Reuters office with clips. She popped up at Davos and on Bill Maher, bantered with Stephen Colbert, appeared on the New York Times op-ed page with some regularity, and was called on to do things like decipher Wall Street’s odd reaction to the 2012 American election .

She’d nearly reached the zenith of the game. So it came as a surprise to underlings when she announced her candidacy (and resignation from Reuters) via a scoop parceled out to the Globe & Mail in July. 

It’s not clear whether the Liberal Party courted Freeland or vice versa. Certainly she’s an asset to the party. Its leader, Justin Trudeau, is perhaps better known for his hunky looks and lineage than he’d like to be, and Freeland gives the party a sort of intellectual boost. She also helps the Liberals underscore a thematic commitment to the middle class.

Freeland is no crazed socialist but a self-described capitalist, red in tooth and claw. 

The Liberals needed that, even in the tony riding (that’s Canadian for “district”) where Freeland won office. Toronto Centre is flush with media and business elites; locals liken it to Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and it is widely seen as a portent for general elections in 2015.

Freeland’s main opponent was, coincidentally or not, another prominent female journalist who also writes on inequality: Linda McQuaig, nominee of the New Democratic Party, whose book, Billionaire’s Ball : Gluttony and Hubris in an Age of Epic Inequality , came out months before Freeland’s Plutocrats . (Quipped one Torontonian: “Freeland wrote what might be seen as an anti-zillionaire book, while her NPD rival McQuaig was concerned merely with billionaires.”) Freeland won the race by a substantial margin, 49 to 36 — the Conservative candidate, to the right of both of Freeland and McQuaig, got less than 9 percent of the vote.

Linda at left of frame speaking towards camera and Chrystia on right in background

Chrystia Freeland and Linda McQuaig debating at all-candidates debate for Toronto Centre November 20, 2013.

Source Getty

For Freeland, politics represented a way to address the issues she reported on and to “make the 21st century work for the middle class ” — presumably, to shape the new New Deal she anticipates.

But what that looks like for her is largely unknown. Raising taxes on the rich? Investments in job creation? Rethinking labor laws? Trade protectionism? Unclear and unarticulated, and Freeland did not respond to several interview requests. Note, though: For all her emphasis on inequality, Freeland claims to be a “capitalist, red in tooth and claw .” She seems to hope to redeem the system from within, to protect it from the likes of upheaval. The upshot: Don’t expect her to lead a revolution. 

To be sure, Freeland couldn’t be too specific in her campaign because legislators in Canada usually toe their party line — and the Liberal Party platform hasn’t yet been determined. “For her to come out with a whole plan, every i dotted and t crossed, would probably be inappropriate,” says political strategist Bob Richardson, of Devon Group, who spent some time campaigning with Freeland.

Freeland pointed out the dilemma — that the rich are getting too rich — but she didn’t say what she was going to do about it.

Still, some say she should have said more. “She’s potentially one of the leaders of the party, and she should be free to say what she wants to do,” says Hon. Hal Jackman , a wealthy businessman and Ontario’s former lieutenant governor. Instead, he says, “Chrystia was vague.” Even in her book, he says, “Freeland pointed out the dilemma — that the rich are getting too rich — but she didn’t say what she was going to do about it.”

Jackman said her campaign shied away from any talk of raising taxes, even to the levels of 10 or 15 years ago. “That wouldn’t be so terrible,” he said. “For all the talk about the rich,” he suspects, “she’s not even as far liberal as Obama.”

Freeland has so far mostly avoided the epithet cast on another Liberal Party intellectual turned politician who’d spent most of his career abroad: Michael Ignatieff , who was often cast as “just visiting ” Canada. (He had spent three decades abroad as a reporter and a human rights scholar.) 

Michael in pink shirt with microphone speaking.

Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff speaks at a townhall discussion during a campaign stop in London, Ontario, March 31, 2011.

Source Getty

Instead — and at least at the beginning of her political career — she seems to be transitioning well. “I hesitate to say these words because everyone hates to read them, but she really does make it all look easy,” says Jodi Butts, who directs a social-finance enterprise and founded Lawyers for Justin, an advocacy group for Trudeau. (Butts’s husband, Gerald, is Trudeau’s principal adviser.)

Waltzing through an ice storm, with a hazelnut torte besides.

A couple of weeks ago, the Buttses invited Freeland and her family, including three kids between the ages of 2 and 12, to Christmas Eve dinner. The city was still suffering the ravages of an ice storm , including fallen trees, treacherous roads and power outages.

“She just waltzed in with her whole family, over the downed tree branches still on our sidewalk, and brought a hazelnut torte besides,” says Butts.

But wait: Did she make the hazelnut torte?

“Not only did she make the torte, but her children helped make it!” says Butts. “I still have the pan — I haven’t even gotten that back to her.” 

Pooja Bhatia

Pooja Bhatia

Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.

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