John Tory announced today that if he is elected Premier, he will subject his campaign-defining faith-based-school-funding proposal to a free vote of MPPs.
The announcement does a couple of things:
1) It mothballs a promise Tory has repeatedly described as one of principle and fairness. Probably for good. Even if today’s gambit defies the odds and turns around his party’s fortunes, it’s difficult to envision a scenario where faith-based funding would win a free vote in a legislature almost certain to have a majority of members – of all parties – opposed to the policy.
One possible scenario – if Tory should win (a very big “if”, as a poll today suggested he may lose his own riding) – would have him introduce the measure, allow it to lose a free vote, claim a moral victory and move on. That’s what Stephen Harper did last year on same-sex marriage.
In any scenario, it’s hard to spin the announcement as anything other than a de facto abandonment of the proposal.
2) Today’s announcement acknowledges Tory’s failure to communicate the merits of his policy not only to Ontarians, but to his own party. Principled or not, Tory’s handling of the matter has rightfully raised serious questions about his political smarts.
Before the campaign began, I described this issue as a potential minefield for all parties. In retrospect, Tory stepped on all the mines and gave Dalton McGuinty a clear path through.
The Liberal strategy has walked a tightrope between muddying the contradictions of the party’s own position (against faith-based funding, except when it comes to Catholic schools), while painting the Conservative proposal as nothing other than a scheme to undermine public education.
It may have been good election strategy. But in the long run, it may prove to be a bad strategy for achieving what the Liberals say is their goal: The defense of the Ontario public education status quo.
After dominating the campaign, the debate will not likely go away. In fact, it has proven to be a timebomb of an issue that explodes every so often in Ontario, as long as one faith’s schools are funded and others’ are not.
Maintaining that status quo ensures the inevitability of another explosion of the debate. And – as one commentator argues – the collateral damage next time may be the Roman Catholic school system itself.