Education issue will dog McGuinty's successor in Ontario

Like former Tory Premier Bill Davis, the departing Dalton McGuinty leaves behind a sticky education issue for his successor.

As Dalton McGuinty prepares to depart as premier he leaves behind a generally impressive legacy: nine years of progress in many areas, including education.

But on that file he also leaves behind a potentially huge political problem for the new premier and her or his government, with or without Bill 115.

And that reminds me of another premier’s departure from Queen’s Park and the education issue he left behind.

Tory Premier Bill Davis stepped down in late 1984 after 14 years as premier, not long after he made the controversial decision to extend funding for Catholic schools to include Grades 11 through 13.

When he made the school funding announcement on June 12, 1984 — to the surprise of everyone except a small group of advisers — he received a standing ovation in the legislature, not only from Conservative MPPs, but from the Liberal and NDP camps.

Frank Miller, who would succeed Davis as premier at a 1985 leadership convention, was among those who stood to applaud the decision.

Ontario Premier Bill Davis resigned in October 1984, shortly after making the controversial decision to extend Catholic school funding. (Bill Becker/Canadian Press)

But Miller would not have known at the time that he would soon be premier and that the Catholic school funding issue would dog him in the 1985 provincial election campaign.

Anger at Catholic school decision

I can recall covering that campaign where angry demonstrators – some even Tories – greeted Miller at many stops to protest the Davis decision.

At one stop in particular – late in the election where Miller and Davis actually campaigned together – people threw rice at them as they left the campaign bus.

Then on election night, Miller’s so-called "Tartan Train" came off the rails, and the Tories were reduced to a minority. Miller and his advisers were so spooked by the election night results, that the day after, he suggested that Catholic school funding might not proceed.

But it was Miller’s minority that did not proceed, as it was soon brought down through an accord between the NDP and the Liberals.

New Liberal Premier David Peterson then implemented the school funding legislation.

Cautionary tale for McGuinty's successor

The issue is not truly analogous to today's ongoing battle between the province's teachers and the McGuinty government or its likely successor.

Dalton McGuinty unexpectedly announced his resgination as Ontario premier in October. (Dave Chidley/Canadian Press)

But it does provide a cautionary tale for governments when a premier makes war with his long-time backers and then leaves a difficult situation to the successor in the premier's office.

The teachers’ issues with the Liberals will not magically disappear overnight, no matter how much Education Minister Laurel Broten hopes they will.

For many teachers, the application of Bill 115 and its provisions harkens back to another dark period for them under former Tory premier Mike Harris.

So, like Frank Miller, the next Liberal premier has been saddled with an unresolved education issue.

Like Conservative voters in 1985 who deserted their party, teachers too are likely to find a new home for their votes.

Many people saw and many Liberals hoped that the results of last fall’s Kitchener-Waterloo byelection – in which teachers abandoned the Liberals for the NDP – was a one-off.

With the teachers, the Liberals would likely have won; without them, they finished third.

So as the next Liberal leader and premier enjoys the moment of her or his election in three weeks time, in their ear may well be the siren call of the opposition benches, courtesy of Dalton McGuinty and Ontario's emboldened public teachers.