The big gamble

How faith-based schools sunk John Tory's dreams
By Peter McCluskey
CBCNews.ca | Updated Oct. 11, 2007

John ToryDuring the speech to members of the business community John Tory promises to allow caucus members a free vote on public funding to the province's private religious schools. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

It will be debated for years to come: if John Tory had just buried the faith-based schools issue, would he now be premier-elect of Ontario?

In what some observers have called a huge political gaffe, Tory loaded the faith-based issue into the Conservative platform, took dead aim at his foot and pulled the trigger.

Tory said he wanted to talk about broken promises by Dalton McGuinty's Liberal government, but the electorate wanted to talk about something else.

Tory made promises that should've resonated with Ontario voters: eliminating the hated health tax, limiting property tax increases, giving greater access to locked-in pension funds, reducing greenhouse gases, building new nuclear plants and giving more money to struggling urban areas.

But one issue overpowered them all: faith-based funding. It was death for the Conservatives and life for the Liberals.

Didn't see it coming

It was part of the Progressive Conservative platform for months before the Oct. 10 election. Tory made reference to it in a speech in June, but it didn't bubble to the surface until just before the official start of the campaign. When it did, it quickly erupted into The Issue. Tory said he wasn't going to back away from it, even though voters made their feelings known.

Those who came face to face with the anger reported back that it was an issue that could sink the ship.

Conservative candidates, some publicly, some privately, said the faith-based issue was the political equivalent of Steve Downie's hit on Dean McAmmond in a recent NHL pre-season match. They knew it was hovering out there, but they didn't see it coming, and they weren't prepared for the impact.

Arguing for fairness

Issues that have dominated Canadian election campaigns over recent years failed to catch the public's attention — the environment, health care, crime, education. Even McGuinty's famous promise not to raise taxes took a back seat. Instead — and in spite of Tory's attempts to shift the agenda — the focus kept returning to the issue of whether or not public money should be used for faith-based schools beyond the Catholic ones that currently receive full funding.

Tory said he saw it as an issue of fairness, plain and simple. To get the kids who attend faith-based schools into the tent, he needed to tempt them and to do that he wanted to use about $500 million of the estimated $12.2 billion that Ontario will spend on elementary and secondary education this year.

Students at faith-based private schools need to follow the same curriculum as students in the public system, Tory said, and their teachers need to have the same qualifications as their public school counterparts. In order to get the public money, they would have to follow the same curriculum, hire qualified teachers and be open to inspections.

Late — most now say too late — in the campaign, Tory tried to bury the issue by saying he would allow a free vote in the legislature. But the damage was done.

University of Windsor political scientist Lydia Miljan said the issue was important as an illustration of how poorly the campaign was run.

"It's one thing to say that it's an issue and go with it, but then you need followup. You need to have a really slick media campaign to articulate your position. You need to have a fully costed program that people can buy into. The Conservatives didn't do any of that … really their job wasn't to provide a lot of new policy, just to show that they were better than the Liberals, but when you're not ready to run an effective campaign you're saying you're not ready to run an effective government."

The decision to give public money to Catholic schools sunk the Tories in 1985 and 22 years later, a similar issue has relegated the Conservatives to the opposition benches for another four years.

Public opinion polls showed the Progressive Conservative leader's personal popularity dwindling. In a cutting description, Toronto Star columnist Joey Slinger called Tory a reverse Moses "leading his people back into the water.…"

Historian David Mitchell it will never be clear whether Tory's decision to bring up faith-based funding was the issue that swung this election.

"You know we'll never really know how divisive that issue was for the results in the election, particularly the results for Mr. Tory's party. If he had not championed faith-based schools and education, might he have won this election? It is very difficult to say," said Mitchell, the vice-principal of Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

"John Tory himself emerges as an unfortunate and one could even say tragic figure in public life. Here's someone who has had so much promise in political terms, was believed by many supporters within his party and outside his party, to be a future leader in this province."

Mitchell went on to say that it is going to be "very, very difficult for Tory to hold onto the leadership of his party."

So the future for Tory looks bleak. Without a seat in the provincial legislature, without a strong grip on the right-wing of his party and with the issue of faith-based funding hanging around his neck, the question will be, is he electable?

Miljan said Tory's days of leading the PCs in Ontario are over. "The [Conservative] Party really have to say, if we want to be in government, John Tory is not the man to lead us."

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