Sex and the Flying Tory

File this one under… I’m not sure. People in glass houses? Cherrypicking as party politics? Being penny-wise and pound-foolish? What?

I’ve come upon two reports today about a controversial spending item under the provincial Liberals’ budget. Apparently, Conservatives are in a bit of a lather over the fact that the province has given taxpayers’ money to study the sex life of a northern flying squirrel.

Here are the details, according to the Star’s report:

Premier Dalton McGuinty’s personal ministry is spending $150,000 to study the sex lives of northern flying squirrels.

McGuinty, who is also Minister of Research and Innovation, a department he created last June, is the government’s point person on scientific and technological funding.

The ministry website says the province is bankrolling an exhaustive examination of northern flying squirrels’ habits at Laurentian University in Sudbury to the tune of $150,000 over five years.

“How do environmental influences, things like food availability, predators and climate changes affect wild animals and their ability to procreate? That’s a question Dr. Albrecht Schulte-Hostedde at Laurentian University hopes to answer,” the website says.

Provincial Conservative leader John Tory isn’t impressed:

“Only these guys are so addicted to spending that they would search high and low to find someone who’s studying the sex life of a flying squirrel.

“People have to ask …: Is the public interest being served by the expenditure of this money?

Now, I know it sounds nutty that we should be studying the sex life of flying squirrels (and now that we have that pun out of the way, let’s move on), but that isn’t the only thing that this study is about. “How do environmental influences, things like food availability, predators and climate changes affect wild animals and their ability to procreate?” is actually a pretty serious scientific question, and there are plenty of universities in Ontario studying questions such as these without raising the ire of the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation.

And then there is the size of the money in question: $150,000 over five years, or $30,000 per year. Basically the cost of a post-doctorate student, or multiple grad students, doing the yeoman’s work that post-doctorate or graduate students typically do every day here in Ontario.

John Tory is cherrypicking. If you’re going to complain about this, you might as well complain about all government-funded research, including the funds being spent to perfect a quantum computer. The only reason this research is being questioned is because John Tory knows that the headline has a dollar figure as well as the word “sex” and “flying squirrels” mixed in.

There are numerous examples of poor government spending, with dollar figures higher than what we’re dealing with here. It is for this reason that we have an Auditor General and why she needs more powers than she does, so we can find those cases where government money is sent to research something that can be discovered by asking one’s mother, or to a more expensive tender that happens to be held by a friend of the government. But if researching the sex lives of flying squirrels in the face of climate change is the best the Conservatives can do against the McGuinty Liberals as an example of government largess, then the McGuinty Liberals must be doing a good job of managing the books.

What gets me the most is why the Conservatives go off on this and ignore the question of the $1.5 billion that may be spent on an extension of the Spadina subway. This isn’t to say that this project isn’t needed, but questions should be asked whether this project (a) might not be the best investment of our public transit dollars and (b) might be in the budget ONLY because the Liberals hope to shore up support in Greg Sorbara’s riding, not to mention the fact that they “want to end the deficit in dramatic fashion” just before the election of 2007, instead of 2006.

Where is John Tory when it comes to the best way to spend $1.5 billion on public transit initiatives? The probable answer? Ducking and covering and praying this doesn’t lose him too many 905 votes. Indeed, his priorities are quite clear with this quote:

“Academic freedom is great and people can study whatever they wish, but we don’t have to support all of that kind of work with research grants …when we don’t have enough money for nurses or to build highways or fund a lot of other things.”

…Like $1.5 billion on a subway extension that might be better spent on public transit initiatives elsewhere? Or highway extensions that violate the principles of smart growth? That’s sound politics, I guess. Oh, well. But, hey, taxpayers can rest assured that if the Liberals spend $30,000 per year of your money on an academic study, John Tory’s Conservatives will be on them like a northern flying squirrel in heat.

Okay, maybe I should pick a different image.

To be fair, John Tory is a decent man and a decent leader of the Progressive Conservative party, and by and large McGuinty is running this province moderately well. I know these two individuals are simply jockeying for position on an election that’s due about eighteen months from now. I guess I’m angry because this political stunt seems beneath them, and maybe I’m having a low tolerance for empty political rhetoric today. I’ll be better tomorrow; I’d better be. If I got this mad over similar issues every day, I’d be in a sleeveless jacket by the end of the week.

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