The big endorsement, Part 3: Alvin Tedjo

ANALYSIS: Alvin Tedjo is running for the Ontario Liberal leadership, but his biggest “get” is from one of this country’s most prominent Progressive Conservatives
By Steve Paikin - Published on Dec 05, 2019
Liberal leadership candidate Alvin Tedjo; Hugh Segal, who served as chief of staff to both prime minister Brian Mulroney and premier Bill Davis. (Steve Paikin)

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This is Part 3 in a series that provides a behind-the-scenes look at how candidates in the Liberal leadership race are lining up their key endorsements.

Alvin Tedjo’s Wednesday got off to a rough start.

His three young children are in the French Catholic elementary-school system in Mississauga, but the education workers at their school are represented by the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation and thus participated in yesterday’s one-day strike. So his kids’ school was shut tight, and Tedjo was scrambling to figure out what to do with his youngsters, who are in senior kindergarten, Grade 2, and Grade 4.

“I think I’m going to take the kids to visit a picket line!” he told me over the phone Wednesday morning.

Tedjo is one of six candidates seeking the Ontario Liberal leadership, which will be decided at a convention next March. He came in third for the Liberals in Oakville North–Burlington in the 2018 provincial election, but the experience only whetted his appetite for politics.

He was director of government relations at Sheridan College and a senior policy adviser to the minister of training, colleges, and universities. Although a relative newbie in the world of partisan politics, he has captured some attention in this leadership run because of his controversial position on school governance: he’d create one unified public-school system and begin the process of taking away public funding from the Catholic system. But it’s his other major policy plank that won him one of this campaign’s most unusual endorsements.

If you saw the news come over your Twitter feed last month, and you follow Ontario politics even a little, you could be forgiven for wanting to give your head a scratch.

There he was — Hugh Segal, a former chief of staff to both Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney and Progressive Conservative premier Bill Davis, endorsing Tedjo for Ontario Liberal leader.

Yes, you read that correctly. One of the country’s most prominent members of the fabled Big Blue Machine was endorsing someone on the Red team.

How did that happen?

Segal has been championing a universal basic income for nearly half a century: as a candidate for parliament in the 1970s, as a senior adviser to the Davis government, from his perch in the Senate of Canada, and as the head of Massey College at the University of Toronto.

Premier Kathleen Wynne tasked him with studying the issue further and coming up with a road map for implementing a pilot project. That effort culminated in a three-year basic-income pilot in Thunder Bay, Hamilton–Brantford, and Lindsay. Early indications were that the program was making an important difference in the lives of lower-income people. But, although the Tories promised during the 2018 election campaign to let the experiment run its course, one of the first acts of the Doug Ford government was to cancel it.

Segal was beyond disappointed, and the episode served to further isolate him from the party he’d once considered his political home. He publicly upbraided the premier, mocking Ford’s favorite slogan by saying that Ford may be “for the people, just not low-income people.”

This past summer, Tedjo decided that if he was going to make restoring the basic-income program part of his platform, he needed to pick the brain of the idea’s highest-profile champion. He did his homework before meeting Segal. “I watched a ton of your interviews with him on The Agenda,” he laughs.

The two then got together for lunch and talked for two hours. “He didn’t endorse me right then and there,” Tedjo tells me. “But we agreed to stay in touch.”

The two continued to touch base at various political events over the next few months — most significantly, at the March for Basic Income, held at Queen’s Park in late October in conjunction with similar events in 26 cities around the world. 

It was then that Tedjo finally popped the question: “What would you think about an endorsement?”

“Well, this is what I would say about you,” Segal replied, and then proceeded to lay it out.  

“Can I quote you on that?” Tedjo asked.

“Let me give you something more formal,” Segal answered, and the deal was sealed.

Having run for the leadership of the old Progressive Conservative Party of Canada back in 1998 (and lost to Joe Clark), Segal could certainly appreciate the importance of an out-of-the-box endorsement. But why do it?

“He’s a bright, able, honest, and publicly spirited voice,” Segal says in an email. “It's not for me to say that he is the best person to be leader or premier; that’s for Liberals to decide. But he is the kind of thoughtful, courageous, and bright candidate who brings credit to any party, even the Liberal Party of Ontario.”

Tedjo says that the endorsement has had exactly the effect he hoped it would. “We’ve expanded our tent with disenfranchised Red Tories and New Democrats who feel politically homeless,” he says. “We’re trying to attract people who never thought of themselves as big-L Liberals.”

Tedjo says that the Segal endorsement caught the eye of “corporate or business Liberals, who feel the party has left them behind.” At the Liberal-leadership showcase last week, a group representing 120 business CEOs was in attendance, supporting Tedjo because of his commitment to restoring the basic-income program.

“They understand it’s good for business, good for the economy, and good for low-income people,” Tedjo says.

Cross-party, high-profile leadership endorsements aren’t unprecedented in politics, but they’re highly unusual. Former attorney general Roy McMurtry (1975-85) endorsed Eric Hoskins for Liberal leader at the 2013 convention that ultimately selected Wynne.

“I have been a partisan all my life and remain disposed to the Red Tory view of ‘nation and enterprise,’” Segal writes. “But truly big issues require cross-party civility and good people.”

Apparently, for Hugh Segal, Tedjo is one of those good people.

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