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Q&A with Ontario Liberal Party leadership candidate Michael Coteau

An interview with Ontario Liberal Party leadership candidate and MPP Micheal Coteau.
Graeme Gordon Montreal, QC

The Ontario Liberal Party were in power for 15 years before the Progressive Conservatives under Doug Ford finally defeated Kathleen Wynne’s government. The OLP was decimated, but new polls show them leading, even though they’re currently leaderless and were demoted to third-party status after the 2018 election.

The Post Millennial plans to interview all of the candidates because the winner has a very good chance of becoming the next premier of the province in short order.

Here’s The Post Millennial‘s interview with one of the top contenders for the OLP leadership, Liberal MPP (Don Valley East, Toronto) Michael Coteau.

(The following interview was edited for clarity and length.)

TPM: So if you could first give our readers a bit of your background story to start.

Coteau: So I was born in Yorkshire, England, in a city called Huddersfield. I came to Canada with my younger brother when I was four. We moved into Flemingdon Park in North York, socially and economically challenged community when I was growing up.

I went to Carleton University. I was the first person in my family to graduate high school and go to university. I then got involved in federal and provincial politics, worked for a cabinet minister, graduated and then went to South Korea for a couple of years, came back and ran for the school board, and [I’ve] been elected official for 16 years now.

TPM: What other work have you done outside of politics?

Cotoeau: I’ve always had a job. I’ve had a job since I was 10 years old. I always joke with the Toronto Sun reporters my first job was working for the Toronto Sun delivering papers. I remind them they have to be nice to me… Then I got my first job at a restaurant when I was 14 down at place in Yorkville called The Chicken Feet. Then around 15 I started working at Swiss Chalet, and I worked there for three years. It was a great job, I loved that job. I worked at the Sky Dome doing room service. And then went off to university, worked at The Gap, worked for small little delivery company, and then started working for [federal Liberal MP] John Manley who was minister of industry. And then when I went to South Korea, I wrote the … curriculum and taught English, came back, ran for the school board, but also worked as a youth worker in Scarborough … and I ran the family literacy day across the country, and then I became the CEO of a national not-for-profit organization called AlphaPlus, and I was responsible for digital literacy in Canada and developing strategies to increase digital literacy for adult learners. Sorry, It’s a long resume, but it’s all the work I’ve done.

There are people in politics who have never ever had to do something like go into a bathroom and clean the floors or clean the toilets, scrape cheese off of a plate. Those are the types of things that make you understand what [everyday people have to do to make a living]. I remember working at The Chicken Feet, my whole summer—it was a Mexican restaurant without a dishwasher—so imagine scraping the cheese off of plates, but I mean when I got the pay cheque I kind of found those values inside that kind of made me who I am today. It made me respect the ability to earn money. My parents didn’t have to give me money since I was 10 years old.

TPM: I actually taught in South Korea as well. What did you learn in your time teaching English there?

Coteau: It was interesting, you know, being a black male in Toronto growing up, sometimes you go into environments [like] South Korea, being the only black person probably in a 500 kilometer radius, you know, walking down the street and people pointing at you, because they haven’t met someone who is black before, or older grandmothers coming up to look at my grocery cart to see what I was eating… Korea taught me two things: it taught me to feel really comfortable in my skin no matter what situation I’m in, being kind of very isolated that way. And the second thing it taught me is the Korean people are, I think, very kind people. It’s taught me how to respect culture and understand culture… [I learned] to remove my western thought from the process of judgement to truly see what the culture is all about.”

TPM: So your main competitor, Steven Del Duca, do you think you hold an advantage currently holding a seat and with him being ousted in the last election?

Coteau: I think there’s an advantage, but there’s also a disadvantage. He’s got more time to focus on the race, I still have to be an MPP. … I’ve definitely got an advantage because I won my election. I beat the deputy mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong, a star PC candidate. There’s an advantage to that, [it shows] you can consistently win elections. I’ve won six elections in a row. But also, Steven not winning his election gives him time focus on the leadership exclusively … there’s some pros and cons [to my situation].

TPM: And in what ways do you differ from Del Duca.

Coteau: I think my experience, Steven has been connected either working for [the party] or being a member for a long time. He’s worked in politics his whole life. I think the advantage from an employment perspective is my list of jobs that I’ve had. I know what it’s like to own a small business. I know what it’s like to run a national charity. I know what it’s like to scrub dishes. I think there’s advantage from having those different perspectives. I’ve served as a school board trustee and chair of the school board, which is the biggest in the country. So I think our perspectives from work is one of the biggest differences between us. And just our life experiences. I grew up in a neighbourhood with a lot of economic and social issues. I know what it’s like to struggle with poverty, I know what it’s like for people to struggle with issues associated with that, like youth violence and people who can’t find jobs or new immigrants’ experiences. All of those things are part of my environment. The struggles of life I think I have a deeper understanding [than Del Duca does].

TPM: Okay, and from a policy angle, where would you two differ the most?

Coteau: Well Steven has focused on, he had time as the ministers of economic development and transportation, so he has those two files, and I would say that those are two really important files. But you know, I’ve had both economic  and infrastructure files like that, so being responsible for the PanAm Games and the infrastructure involved with it. But also being responsible for interactive digital media and television, the music industry, as the minister [of tourism and culture]. So I have that economic and infrastructure experience. But on the other side, being the minister responsible for anti-racism and children and youth services, community and social services, citizenship and immigration, those types of things have given me a completely different perspective. I’ve had six ministerial responsibilities, serving as a school board trustee, [these] experiences give me an advantage.

TPM: For policy proposals where would you say there’s a main difference?

Coteau: My whole approach has been around focusing on … trying to figure out how we can reimagine what it means to be an Ontarian and what the challenges are that we have. One of the things I’ve been asking people to do–for example, Steven’s been asking a lot “We’re in the fight of our life.” And I keep saying that we need to take one step back and figure out what we’re fighting for. And that’s about redefining what it means to be a Liberal today. You know, why are people Liberals? And it’s a tough question for people to answer. It’s a tough question for Liberals to answer. Conservatives have a very clear perspective on why they’re Conservatives. For me, I’m trying to have Liberals rethink what it means to be a Liberal, and to reimagine what Ontario can be by being bold. And not being afraid of asking tough questions, and take on big policy issues.

TPM: Okay. Branching off of that, where do you think the Ontario Liberal Party lost its way when previously in power for 15 years? I mean, it was a pretty strong rebuke from the voters last election.

Coteau: I think it was a combination of a few things. One, change is a powerful element. People want change always, and 15 years in government is a long time. Kathleen Wynne, I think, gave us a bit of an extension because she was seen as change. Being the first female premier, being openly gay, doing things differently. She was a big change from Dalton McGuinty. But I don’t think that the element of change went away, that was a weight on the party, because of the 15 years, I think it played a huge role in people wanting something different, and Kathleen Wynne’s vision just wasn’t enough of the change that people wanted to see. The second thing is, every time you make a decision as a Liberal, as the Liberal government over the last 15 years, there were people upset with the decisions we made. Mainly around clean energy and wind turbines, decisions around hydro, decisions around sex-ed curriculum. … The other thing is we just didn’t run a very good campaign. ….

But you have to remember, when Wynne was elected in 2014 her approval rating was like 42 percent. That’s extremely high for a sitting premier. The sale of hydro was the turning point of the erosion of that support.

TPM: Do you think the past Liberal government was too beholden to the special interest donor class?

Coteau: Yes. I think that one of our big problems as Liberals was we relied on a small amount of donors for most of our revenue that came in. We have the most individual donors of any campaign and that’s because we’ve built a broad base, we’ve not gone to the regular people, but the people of Ontario.

TPM: Okay, and who were some of those donors you think [the OLP] was too beholden to?

Coteau: Developers, big companies, industries, you know, financial, anyone who had money. Businesses in Ontario that heavily rely on regulation that have an interest in government.

TPM: I was looking at your green policy proposals, what are your thoughts on using nuclear power?

Coteau: I think it’s fine, [the nuclear power] we already have in place. I don’t know if I would heavily invest billions of dollars to build new power plants without first exploring green and hydro options.

TPM: But the investment in green technology didn’t work out to well last time, what would be different this time around?

Coteau: The technology is increasing, the prices are dropping by 50 percent every year. The technology is shifting. … I think the business of energy production by government is a dying business. I think you are going to see a decentralized energy production grid in the next 30 years. The days of these massive plants producing energy and shipping it across the province and losing half the energy en route, those days are done. It’s going to be local solutions, that produce these micro-power production, locally harvesting wind, hydro, all types of energy sources–and I think we are going to see a big shift. I think that the innovation that is around today, and some of it is just at the starting stage, will become the new normal.

TPM: What are the signs telling you that this energy shift is occurring?

Coteau: We’re going to see hydrogen car production, research investment increase. The renewables, around the world, are becoming more dominant as production costs decrease. There’s going to be an energy revolution–that’s started already, but that’s going to really take hold in the next decade or two, that’s going to make [renewables] very cheap to produce. One of the problems that we have when we invest billions of dollars … into these major projects that create energy is that we lock the system in for 50 years and it becomes very challenging. It restricts innovation of new technology because [we’re stuck paying] for old technology over a long period of time.

In the future we have to start exploring local projects and start figuring out how we can localize energy production in a safe way that is reliable and efficient. It’s just something we have to keep our eyes on, and keep exploring and researching with companies because if we don’t do that–let’s take Nigeria for example, they skipped the brick-and-mortar banks and went straight to telephone banking because they didn’t have this established, [outdated] system. … We’ve seen this happen before. Sometimes when you build the building and then a new technology comes that’s so disruptive, that allows you to do the same thing without all the people, and energy, and buildings, and maintenance, all of that stuff being attached to it, they end up winning. It’s the decentralization of systems. We’ve seen that with Uber, we’ve seen that with music stores, we’ve seen it with pictures, movies, television–everything has changed. I think energy production and distribution is going to be the same thing…

TPM: So you’ve had lots of criticism for the Ford government, obviously, being in opposition, what’s one area you think the Ford government is actually doing a good job?

Coteau: …They made transit free for kids under 12 on GO. I thought that was a good move. It aligned with what I’ve been calling for when I said we should be looking for ways to reduce the burden of using public transit, and fares is one of them. It aligns with my free transit plan. I think it’s a great thing and it gets people moving.

TPM: Where do you stand on Ontario still having a Catholic school board paid for by taxpayers?

Coteau: I’m fine with it. I think that–like there are two reasons for it. One, I think that there’s so much division being created by the Ford government today that to go after the Catholic board and try and merge those boards, I think that it’s an issue that is going to divide Ontarians more. I don’t think it’s the right time for this debate. And the second thing is that I think if Liberals actually took on that issue as one of their policies, we’re going to ensure that Doug Ford returns to power. There’s a lot more bigger priorities on my plate to deal with than merging school boards.

TPM: What about the LCBO and Beer Store, what are your thoughts on those two?

Coteau: The Beer Store and LCBO, I’m completely fine with those models. I think that the Beer Store with the recycling is great. The LCBO as a mechanism to raise revenue [for the province] is a great thing. The only thing I would change is I would allow for the sale of wine and localized beer–like you know how Doug Ford wants to put beer and wine in convenience stores, if he does that, and in our grocery stores, I’d put in a requirement, maybe 40 percent local…

TPM: What are your thoughts on the current high school teachers’ union negotiations with the Ford government?

Coteau: I think that the minister of education is not being–I guess the union term or the negotiations term would be bargaining in good faith. I don’t think [Stephen Lecce] is bargaining in good faith. There’s a lot of misinformation that he’s pushed out there. I think the big point here is the fact that, number one, Doug Ford wanted to increase classroom sizes, he went from what, like 22 to 28 and then went down to 25 or 26. It’s the same strategy that they use over and over. They make a massive cut, and then they give a little bit of the money back and say they’re increasing the amount. It’s an old Conservative tactic and I don’t think Stephen Lecce is being very honest with his approach when he is pushing out that information.

TPM: Yeah, but isn’t that part of negotiations, is that you start at a higher number than what you would actually want… Furthermore, when we look at the fiscal picture in Ontario, all these renegotiations with public sector workers, under your leadership would you not be trying to save the province some money?

Coteau: We do need to balance budgets in this province. But there are a couple of things that people need to understand about where we are as a province. Number one, people always try to compare us to other sub-nationals. We are a different sub-national so the responsibilities that we have in Ontario in regards to the delivery of education, delivery of infrastructure, the delivery of health care, is very different from other levels of government around the world, other sub-nationals. And I believe that half of our debt is tied to public assets that we own. So when you look at it from those two perspectives, you can’t compare Ontario to other sub-nationals, because we, as a province, if you made us a country, we’re larger than many of countries out there in regards to our revenue, our GDP, etcetera. So you have to keep that in mind.

The second thing is, yes, you’re always going to try and balance the budget. You know, Liberals have been good at balancing budgets. The last 40 years, I think that there have been seven budgets that have been balanced by any government, two by Conservatives, five by Liberals. And Kathleen Wynne did balance the budget, in 2016-2017 the budget was balanced. …

The big problem now is that Doug Ford is spending more than Kathleen Wynne’s budget ever was, but people are getting less, and they’re spending more. It’s because he’s given tax breaks to corporations.

TPM: The fourth biggest line item in the Ontario budget is servicing the interest on the debt, do you think this is acceptable?

Coteau: Here’s the big question. I don’t want to justify debt, because overall its better when you don’t have debt. And if I ever had the ability to form government, one of my objectives would be to balance the budget. … But having said that, one has to understand that we went through one of the worst recessions in the history of this province… We made investments in infrastructure, post-secondary education, we were building universities and schools, and investing in research and development, and building roads when we were in a recession. And there was a reason for it. Half of the debt comes from that time period. So we have to keep that in mind. The second thing is going back to the ownership of those assets, like that debt is attached to an asset. So the way we do our books in Ontario, they’re very different than from other parts of the world. We actually, even if it’s an asset, it still gets put down as a debt. So if you’re investing into that infrastructure and it is an asset, it’s still considered borrowed money. We have to understand that the reason that we can borrow is because we have a good rating and because people see our economy as strong and worth investing in.

No one’s going to invest in Ontario if they think it’s a bad investment. So when we start to make those investments, like, for example, congestion in Ontario, like traffic. It costs us $11 billion in lost revenue every single year because of traffic. What would happen if we actually opened that up? What does that mean for the economy? What does that mean for our productivity?

TPM: Do you think the Ontario government is transparent enough?

Coteau: No, and it starts of with the mandate letters. They’re not transparent. It’s hard to get information from them. Every ministry you can think of … there’s files that are being held back, from the public, from legislators. And we see it every single day.

TPM: Okay, so if you were premier of Ontario what would you do to change that?

Coteau: I would make mandate letters public again. I would review caucus services and look for ways to make that more transparent. I would change even the way in which the reporting process is, like open data. I would double down on that and create more data points where people could actually analyze what governments are doing.

TPM: If you were to become premier, how would you get the deficit spending under control?

Coteau: It would be entirely by building the economy. From 2003 to 2017 the revenue in government doubled and it was mostly based on increased productivity in Ontario. We haven’t raised personal income taxes for about 25 years in this province, besides the health premium, there hasn’t been any significant increase. So for me it would be by opening up opportunities and looking for ways to grow the economy, and to build more revenue through that. And it’s happening every year, we’re seeing it happen, and Ontario is good for that. … I heard a statistic yesterday, you know, life sciences–the two biggest companies in the United States on the NASDAQ that represent life sciences, are valued more than the entire mining sector across this country. That’s what someone from that sector told me, and I thought to myself, there’s all these industries that are out there that are growing at such a rapid pace that we need to ensure that we reap some of the benefit as Ontarians.

TPM: What’s an ideal Sunday for you and your family?

Coteau: It would be going out and exploring parts of the GTA. Driving from Toronto to places like Cobourg, going off to the beach there, or go to the Bruce Trail. Go downtown to Kensington Market. Just doing non-regular types of things, just getting out there and exploring.

TPM: What’s a TV show you’ve recently binged?

Coteau: About a month ago I watched something that was awesome. It’s called Still Game. It’s a Scottish show, it is amazing. I really went through seven seasons probably in two months … It’s about two old guys in a Scottish town, the township is a bit depressed economically. It’s about these two guys that have been friends their whole lives, their wives have died, and it’s just about their daily activities, they’re still game. You should watch it, you have to watch three or four episode to really appreciate it.

TPM: What have you learned from fatherhood?

Coteau: I always tell my daughters that I’ve been a father as long as they’ve been alive, so they’re learning and I’m learning. So I see it as a learning experience, it makes you better understand your faults … it’s been a huge learning experience for me, and it’s been beautiful. The privilege to be able to raise to young girls, it’s the greatest privilege that anyone can ask for. You know, they’re born in your care, and they’re their own souls. You’ve just got to nurture them as much as possible so they can reach their potential and live a good, healthy life.

Micheal Coteau’s leadership website can be found here.

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