John Tory ran his campaign to become Premier of Ontario under the motto “Leadership Matters”. The lesson to be drawn from that disastrous campaign? Politics matter.
Tory’s campaign crashed and splintered on the shoals of his promise to extend public funding to non-Catholic faith-based schools. It was a policy born of conviction and principles, he repeatedly said.
He said it even after he reversed course late in the campaign and – in an attempt to quash a rebellion over the issue within the Progressive Conservative base itself – announced he would subject the policy to a free vote, which likely would have killed it before it could be implemented.
Conviction does matter, of course. And yes, principles and policies also matter. But in the absence of politics – the process by which those-who-would-lead persuade those-who-would-be-led to follow them down any particular path – conviction and policies can be as hollow as… well… as hollow as John Tory’s campaign turned out to be.
Even with all the personal conviction in the world, you cannot lead a team of people without first convincing them to go in the same direction as you.
In the wake of the campaign results, there are even stories emerging that the very groups to whom this policy should have most appealed – religious and cultural groups who have been lobbying for funding for many years – were not completely onside.
They were supportive of the policy, but uncomfortable both with the way it was handled by Tory, and also with his apparent inability to foresee and quell the backlash it provoked.
Indeed, the Progressive Conservatives may have hoped the faith-based school funding issue would help them make electoral gains among different minority communities, but there was little evidence of that on voting day.
They won back the riding of Thornhill, with its large Jewish population, but failed to make any other inroads in Ontario’s many multicultural suburban and urban ridings. John Tory himself failed to win a seat in Don Valley West, exactly that sort of riding.
On the other side of the coin, Dalton McGuinty made history this election by becoming the first Liberal Premier of Ontario in seven decades to win back-to-back majorities. But insomuch as he accomplished this feat by exploiting Tory’s mishandling of the faith-based school funding issue, it is worth noting that his party’s election strategy did little to promote the “social cohesion” he said he was defending.
By explicitly connecting faith-based schools to the “strife, struggle and controversy” found on the streets of Western Europe, where debates over multiculturalism have occasionally turned violent in recent years, McGuinty turned up the heat and emotions on the issue. He has credibly been accused of using coded language to appeal to majority fears of minority groups. Especially Muslims.
At the same time, the Liberal leader never clearly answered questions about his own contradictory position against religious school funding, except when it comes to Roman Catholic schools – a defense of the Ontario public education status quo, which has been condemned by a committee of the United Nations.
It served the Liberals well as a short-term strategy. By obfuscating their own contradictions, they may have attracted voters who were opposed to funding any faith-based schools, including Roman Catholic.
In the wake of John Tory’s experience, it is unlikely any mainstream political party will want to touch this issue again for many years. But they may not have a choice.
So far, the only political party in agreement with that sentiment is the Green Party of Ontario, which did not win any seats this election, but did increase its vote more than any other party.
As long as one faith’s schools are funded to the exclusion of others, the issue will remain on the table. And so long as it does remain, the future status of all religious schools – including Catholic separate schools – is uncertain.