we thought dalton mcguinty, aka premier-in-waiting, was ready for prime time. But last week's fiasco over Tory plans to extend tax credits to private and religious schools shows that it doesn't take much to knock the Liberal leader off the rails.The Grits should have been making political hay by pointing out how the Tory proposal is nothing but a break for the Richie Riches who send their kids to Upper Canada College, Havergal and other private institutions of finer learning.
Instead, McGuinty's Grits are in damage-control mode. And the leader himself is facing a caucus mini-revolt. How did it come to this?
Shoot-from-the-lip McGuinty, it turns out, was a little too quick to condemn the Tory proposal. Several members of his caucus -- at least half a dozen, one MPP says -- are not averse to extending tax credits to religious schools, which is also part of the Tory plan.
It turns out McGuinty isn't opposed to the idea either, if we're to believe the tune he's singing now, but that's not the impression he gave when he wrote former Foreign Affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy on the subject last year. That was shortly after the United Nations criticized Ontario for funding Catholic schools but not those of other faiths.
The Liberal leader now says money for religion-based educational institutions should be made available, just not right away. First, he says, we need to fix a public school system that's in total disarray.
As usual, the Liberals want to have it both ways.
What a mess. Still, Gerard Kennedy, the Grits' education critic, doesn't see a contradiction in the Liberal position.
He contends that funding for religious schools doesn't necessarily mean less money for the public system. Both can be accommodated, he says. How?
"We don't have the answer to that at this time," says Kennedy.
If he will admit to any failing, it's that the Liberals haven't been able to articulate their position clearly enough. Go figure.
"People are talking about religious schools, which is exactly what the government wants," he says. "But the real beneficiaries are the private-sector schools. We're paying the price, in terms of communication."
On CBC Radio Tuesday morning (May 22), McGuinty said, just in case there's any confusion, that a Liberal government would repeal the Tory measure.
But there's still the small matter of that caucus revolt. MPP Monte Kwinter is a long-time proponent of funding for religious schools, notwithstanding the fact that the feds already offer a tax credit to parents who send their kids to parochial schools.
"I've always supported full funding for faith-based schools," Kwinter tells NOW. "There should be some recognition in the (provincial) tax regime. I'm personally delighted that that's happened. I don't think anyone accepts the argument that Catholic schools should be funded and the others not."
Grit MPP Michael Bryant is another who has publicly expressed support for funding for religious schools.
Bryant, whose own St. Paul's riding, like Kwinter's, includes a substantial Orthodox Jewish constituency, won many a vote campaigning on this very issue in the last election.
But this week the MPP seems less anxious to fan the flames of division within the Grit caucus. He declined to respond to several requests from NOW for comment.
Kathleen Wynne, who unsuccessfully sought the Liberal nomination in St. Paul's before the last election, says the party could have avoided this mess if it had taken what she calls a "principled stand" in favour of funding for religious schools during the election.
She says she personally urged McGuinty's advisers to do just that, apparently to no avail.
"I'm disappointed we didn't come out earlier on this," Wynne says. "I think we could have claimed some ground."
Wynne is talking now about moving toward a confederated school board system. The horror. McGuinty also has to worry about the teachers unions he's been stroking.
Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation president Earl Manners says it's premature to say whether Grit support for faith-based schools will mean no OSSTF support for the Libs come the next election.
But there is a subtle warning. Manners says the Grits "need to oppose this legislation without equivocation."
The Liberals will be out in full force this week flailing away at the Tory plan. Election-style factsheets and pamphlets have been prepared. MPPs will be working the phones. But the damage may already have been done.
Total number of students enrolled in Ontario private schools: 102,000
Number of students in religious schools: 42,000
Number of students in private academic schools: 60,000
Number of students enrolled in private Christian day schools province-wide: 25,000
Number of students enrolled in GTA Jewish day schools: 11,300
Total number of Jewish school-age children: 40,000