Want to liven up a boring dinner party?
Or maybe destroy it entirely?
Here’s what you can do:
Bring the conversation around to politics. Or religion. Or both, if you’re feeling particularly reckless.
The Ontario election campaign doesn’t officially begin until next week, but the election date was announced months ago. Unofficial campaigning has been ongoing ever since.
Until recently, the unofficial campaign was as boring as a bad dinner party.
Then along came… politics and religion: The former in the form of polls showing a tight race between Dalton McGuinty’s governing Liberals and John Tory’s opposition Progressive Conservatives, and the possibility of a minority government.
And the latter in the form of an issue that has the potential to dominate the campaign:
The Tories’ proposal to extend public funding to all faith-based schools.
On one level, this doesn’t seem as if it would be all that controversial. With the exception of the four Atlantic provinces, every province in the country – Ontario included – funds religious schools to some extent.
But Ontario is the only province that funds schools of only one religious group and no other.
In Ontario, about two-thirds of school-age children attend mainstream public schools. Among those who don’t, more than 90 per cent attend separate Roman Catholic schools, which are fully funded by the province. Other faith-based schools receive no provincial funding at all. Parents who wish to send their kids to these schools must pay substantial tuition fees.
The funding issue was a factor in the 2003 election campaign, when the Liberal Party promised to repeal the governing Conservatives’ Equity in Education Act, which provided a modest tax credit to parents who sent their kids to private schools. Because it was available to parents of any private-school students – not simply religious schools – McGuinty successfully and credibly painted this credit as a tax break for the rich, and retroactively canceled it shortly after he took power.
John Tory’s plan is different from the previous Conservative policy. It proposes to bring non-Catholic faith-based schools into the public system, and make those schools accountable to the Ministry of Education, rather than simply giving tax breaks to parents.
Putting aside the question of what is good or bad education policy (I will return to that question on this blog in the days ahead), the new Tory plan may prove more difficult for the Liberals to fight than the old one.
Why? Well, it’s a battleground that is full of political minefields: religion, multiculturalism, historical grievances and prejudices… one wrong step and you risk setting off an explosion you can’t control.
And for the Liberals, the risk is compounded by the fact that the battle takes place right on the turf of part of their traditional base – what some politicians have inelegantly called “the ethnic vote”.
For example, when Dalton McGuinty said the Tory proposal would put the “social cohesion” of Ontario at risk, Reuven Bulka, the prominent Ottawa rabbi and talk-show host – who happens to be the Premier’s friend and neighbor – accused McGuinty of “taking the road of divisiveness”.
The debate also risks dividing the Liberal caucus – as the Toronto Star’s Ian Urquhart described a few months back – and putting several of the Liberals’ own seats at risk.
Finally, the more the Liberals attack the Tory proposal, the more they will face questions about their own position supporting the status quo – funding one religion’s schools to the exclusion of others (a position they share with the NDP).
By attacking a proposal to fund non-Catholic faith-based schools, while defending the funding of Catholic schools, the Premier has already exposed himself to charges of hypocrisy and cynicism.
In the meantime, a growing number of public school boards have voted in favor of motions to eliminate Catholic school boards entirely, a position supported by the provincial Green Party, and probably a growing number of citizens in an increasingly secular age.
The Conservatives, too, need to walk carefully through this minefield. As my colleague Sue Kelley points out in her blog, Tory’s proposal risks alienating the party’s rural base, some of whom are still not happy with Bill Davis’s surprise decision to extend full funding to Catholic schools two decades ago. Some Conservatives may end up sitting on their hands during this campaign.
In fact, one prominent conservative activist, who will be doing just that, told me that “John Tory didn’t learn from Bill Davis’s mistakes” on the faith-based funding issue.
This could be one lively dinner party. With lots of broken plates at the end.
For a comprehensive overview of this issue, have a listen to a podcast of a show I produced a few months back.