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Ontario: No Political Hat Trick

12 Oct

Back in the middle of the summer, when politics and elections were the furthest things from most people’s minds, Toronto mayor Rob Ford hosted a barbecue for 800 of his closest friends.

It was a special event honoring federal finance minister Jim Flaherty for his work helping Toronto-area candidates make historic breakthroughs during the federal election earlier this year.

Those federal breakthroughs came about six months after Ford’s own breakthrough victory in Toronto – a steak-and-potatoes conservative mayor winning power in what some perceive as a brie-and-white-wine liberal city.

The barbecue came to the attention of the media because of a surprise guest who showed up to address the gathering: Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

In a video of the event shot by one of the barbecue guests and later posted online, Harper made partisan comments about Ontario politics:

“We started cleaning up the left wing mess federally in this area,” Harper said. “Rob’s doing it municipally. And now we’ve got to complete the hat trick and do it provincially as well.”

When Harper made those remarks in early August, it seemed likely that Ontario PC leader Tim Hudak had a good chance of completing that conservative hat trick. Only two months before the scheduled provincial election, his party sat comfortably atop public opinion polls, and the trend over many months had shown Progressive Conservative support growing as support for Premier Dalton McGuinty’s governing Liberals steadily fell.

In retrospect, Hudak was trying to swim against a couple of longstanding currents in Ontario politics. The first was the tendency of Ontarians to give party leaders some extended time on the opposition benches before they are willing to vote them into government. Hudak’s two immediate predecessors as PC leader – John Tory and Ernie Eves – learned that lesson the hard way, as did McGuinty himself when he was trounced by Mike Harris in his first election campaign as Liberal leader in 1999.

The second – even more unfailing – current was the tendency of Ontario voters to vote in different parties provincially than they do federally. In the 1970s, when Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals held power in Ottawa, so did Bill Davis’s Tories at Queens Park. In the ‘80s, Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative governments negotiated with Liberal and NDP governments in Ontario. In the ‘90s, Liberals under Jean Chretien owed successive majority victories to Ontario voters, who handed them near-sweeps of this province. At the same time, they were giving Mike Harris similar victories in provincial elections. Finally, the current Harper era in federal politics has coincided with the McGuinty era in Ontario.

When the video of Harper’s barbecue speech showed up online, his aides seemed to realize that it probably wasn’t helpful to the Hudak campaign, or to the conservative cause, for the Prime Minister to be seen making such a blatant partisan intervention into a provincial election campaign. A bit of an Internet cat-and-mouse game ensued, with Conservatives trying to remove every online appearance of the video as quickly as McGuinty supporters could get it reposted.

As I have written before on this blog, it helps to imagine this province as an Ontario-shaped target, with a lop-sided blue bull’s-eye in the middle, stretching across the rural southwestern, central and eastern parts of the province. That’s the conservative heartland – a couple-dozen ridings that right-leaning parties usually win easily in both provincial and federal elections.

Splotches of NDP orange dot the outer edge of the province-shaped target, where the most urban neighborhoods of our cities and the least-populated stretches of our northern regions lie. When New Democrats do well in Ontario – as they did in both elections this year – the perimeter of the province grows a deeper shade of orange.

Between the orange edge and the blue bull’s-eye is the red Liberal donut that expands or shrinks at the expense of the other colors, depending on the Grits’ success from election to election.

In May’s federal election, the Tories and the NDP both took big bites out of different sides of that donut – most notably in Toronto-area ridings. The result was the worst showing ever for the federal Liberal party.

In Ontario earlier this month, it was Toronto voters – and to a lesser extent those in Ottawa and a few other urban areas – who preserved the red donut enough to give the McGuinty Liberals a narrow minority victory.

It’s hard to know if Harper’s comments helped McGuinty win. But they certainly underlined the fact that in this province, political hat tricks are hard to come by.

Separate School Funding

19 May

If I wanted to change the law governing school funding in Ontario, the first thing I would do is find out when Dalton McGuinty does his gardening.

The Premier occasionally must pick vegetables, mow the lawn and rake leaves, no?

Or maybe he’s otherwise occupied with the endless issues that occupy the leader of Ontario.

On September 11, 2005, for example, there was no time for mucking about in the yard.

That day, after months of passionate debate over the proposed introduction of sharia law in Ontario, the Premier announced the province’s decision.

McGuinty not only ruled out the use of sharia – or Islamic law – in arbitrating family-law disputes in Ontario, but also proclaimed an end to all religious arbitration in this province.

For 14 years, arbitrations conducted by Jewish and Christian religious courts – over subjects such as divorces and financial disagreements – were legally binding in Ontario. The Premier’s decision put an end to that arrangement.

Some said the government violated that most basic rule of public policy: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. These courts had operated for years without complaint. Others said it was a bold decision on the Premier’s part, a strong defense of the separation of church (or mosque, or synagogue) and state.

One thing about the decision is certain: It was internally consistent. It’s hard to justify denying religious arbitration to one group while maintaining it for others.

But that consistency threw into sharp relief the discrepancies of another policy – one that’s had a practical effect on the lives of more Ontarians over a much longer period of time: The public funding of Roman Catholic primary and secondary education to the exclusion of all other religions and cultures.

While Ontario parents can send their children to Catholic schools that are fully funded by the government, parents who send their kids to equivalent schools of other denominations and religions must spend thousands of dollars a year out of their own pockets.

Of course, the special status of Ontario’s Catholic schools is a result of nothing less than the creation of our country, forged in compromise that included a guarantee of religious education for the Catholic minority in Upper Canada and the Protestant one in Lower Canada.

Some argue the spirit of that 19th century constitutional compromise was about safeguarding minority – not simply Catholic – rights. Others say it is an anachronism and that no group should still get public funds for religious education. But neither argument has had much success in changing the status quo on education funding, although in an election year, the issue is once again bubbling up at Queen’s Park.

A decade ago, Arieh Waldman, a Torontonian whose kids were Jewish day school students, took the issue all the way to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. In its non-binding 1999 decision, the UN committee ruled that while Ontario wasn’t obliged to fund religious schools at all, it couldn’t pick and choose among religions.

A few years later, the Conservative government introduced the Equity in Education Act, which gave tax breaks to parents of private-school students.

Those tax breaks didn’t last long. Because they were available to parents of any private-school students – not simply religious schools – it was politically easy, and maybe partially accurate, for opponents to paint them as tax breaks for the rich.

When McGuinty’s Liberals took power in 2003, one of their first acts was to kill the Equity in Education Act. Since then, they have shown no inclination to propose an alternative to the status quo.

Which brings us back to Dalton McGuinty’s gardening habits.

Throughout the ‘70s and early ‘80s, activists pressed the Ontario government to extend full funding of Catholic education beyond grade ten. Premier Bill Davis refused until 1984, shortly before his retirement, when he unexpectedly reversed course on the issue.

Years later, Davis explained his sudden turnaround as “a matter of conscience” He said his mind changed when a group of Brampton Catholic students approached him as he worked on his front lawn. He couldn’t give them a good-conscience explanation why they had to pay tuition in their late high school years, while public-school students did not.

So here’s what I would do if I wanted to get a new hearing from the government on this issue:

a) Find out when Dalton McGuinty does his gardening.

b) Send off my kids for a friendly chat.