John Tory is having the worst campaign of his life. John Tory is destroying the Progressive Conservative party a second time. John Tory is about to have his ass handed to him by the Liberal party. That appears to be the consensus during this campaign.
That is, until you step away from the Liberal blogs, the pundits and the campaign managers and actually get the view from the street.
John Tory’s campaign has been marked by controversy, to be sure, and he has been on the defensive far more than he’d like. However, if you look at the polls throughout the campaign, the best you can say is that they’re stagnant. All three parties remain within the statistical margin of error of their numbers at the start of the campaign. Currently the Liberals hold 42.8% of the vote, while the New Democrats are taking 16.9%. The Conservatives remained the choice of 33.1% of Ontarians.
It’s hard to imagine any party commanding the loyalty of a third of the entire electorate being at death’s door. It’s hard to imagine any party leader having so many Ontarians behind him ever having his ass handed to him by the opponents he faces. But the triumphalism of the Liberal rhetoric is so out of whack with reality that one wonders if there isn’t a hint of fear, here. If Tory is indeed destroying the Progressive Conservatives of Ontario as he did the national party during the disastrous 1993 election (and, really, the buck stops with Kim Campbell, doesn’t it?), he has about 17 percentage points still to go.
The Liberals remain down on their electoral take of 2003, while the Tories are holding steady on their election day numbers. It’s the NDP and the Greens who seem to have benefited from voter anger over McGuinty’s broken promises, but the way the vote breaks across the province could be problematic for the Liberals. The Tories won most of their seats in rural southwestern and eastern Ontario, as well as a fair chunk of the belt of suburbs around Toronto. In the year leading up to this election, we saw signs of an NDP resurgence in the City of Toronto, as well as in smaller urban centres and in the North. If Liberal support remains consistent throughout the province and Tory surges, even a bit, McGuinty faces a risky battle on two fronts, where NDP strength in the cities combined with Tory strength in rural areas could bring a minority government into play.
That might explain the heat behind the Liberal rhetoric against Tory, and the focus given on the one of the smaller planks of Tory’s campaign.
So what are John Tory’s great and many sins, according to the Liberal party? Listening to the campaign, it all seems to narrow down to three: that John Tory even considered, for half a second, bringing religious-run schools into the public education system, that he allowed rural activist Randy Hillier to win a free and fair nomination battle for the Conservative candidacy of Lanark-Frontenac-Addington, and that Frank Klees suggested charging five dollars for every patient’s visit to an emergency room.
Compared to the $14 billion of tax cuts and new program spending in John Tory’s campaign, this seems a very narrow focus by the Liberals against their opponent. Why don’t the Liberals trumpet their bold plan to improve public transit versus the Tories uncosted and unfocused policy? Why not go after the fact that John Tory proposes to fund his proposals with $2.6 billion in spending cut “efficiencies” that experience tells me simply aren’t there? But then, these flaws might not be sufficient for the Liberals to demonstrate their supposed superiority. By engaging the whole of the Tory platform, they risk highlighting the basic strength of it (especially given that not much separates the two). And they run the risk of failing to divert the attention of Ontarians away from the fact that, unlike McGuinty, Tory has yet to break an election promise.
Tory’s biggest advantage comes when he actually speaks. Plenty of Ontarians have been impressed by his intelligence, his willingness to listen, and his ability to defend his proposals. Now, I don’t support Tory’s proposal to expand Ontario’s education system to treat non-Catholic religious run schools just like the Catholic schools, as I firmly believe that all public funding for education should consolidated into a single secular system available to all. Despite this, Tory’s proposal is compelling on a number of fronts, and the depth of criticism against it is simply not justified.
Adding religious-run schools to the public system won’t drag money away from public schools, since the $400 million in expected costs is new money in a Tory platform that increases funding to public education overall. And we won’t be giving this money blindly to fundamentalist Christian schools teaching creationism in science class or Islamic madrases teaching children to shun western culture. Will Tory’s proposal force us to fund every school operated by Tom, Dick and Jerry Falwell? That’s unlikely given the number of strings attached to these funds. Religious schools that receive the funding must teach the Ontario curriculum, and open their doors to all students, regardless of their ethnic and religious background (you never know; there might be Christians out there who want to give their children a good Jewish education; certainly there are Muslims out there who are sending their children to Catholic schools). As a result of these sensible controls, a number of religious schools have already said that they won’t accept Tory’s money, and this neatly eliminates the woo-woo factor.
The biggest advantage John Tory’s proposal on funding religious-run schools has is that it is actually the fair and equitable solution. Any argument that the Liberals or the NDP make against this initiative is rendered to simple hypocrisy every time the defend maintaining the status quo, which provides funding for Ontario’s Catholic school system. Only the Green Party has taken the consistent opposing position of removing public funding from all religious schools, including the Catholics. And while I support the Green Party’s proposal over that of John Tory, Tory’s plan has the advantage of not requiring a constitutional amendment to implement.
Then there is the campaign against Randy Hillier. Although eclipsed by the amount of attention Tory’s education plan received, for a while it looked like this would be the focus of attack from the Liberals. And, for me that was the most telling thing about the actual strength of John Tory as a leadership candidate that the Liberals feared. Tory had gained the support of many Liberals during his run for mayor of Toronto. He was moderate, congenial, intelligent, and he hadn’t broken any promises, yet. There was nothing on him that the Liberals could attack, so they attacked those around him. They attacked his predecessors, Ernie Eves and Mike Harris, and they attacked the controversial candidates on his team, chief among them being Hillier.
Hillier is a controversial figure. An aggressive rural activist who led the Lanark Landowners Association, he and his followers engaged in acts of civil disobedience to promote the plight of farmers against what they saw was an intrusive and unresponsive urbanist government. This included clearing brush land against the wishes of environmentalists, and driving tractors down Highway 401 to Queen’s Park, creating a rolling blockade.
The problem is, Hillier wasn’t controversial enough. He is doing no more than speaking for a lot of people around him: beleaguered farmers who feel that the city folk in Queen’s Park aren’t paying attention to their issues. Those that compare the violent native blockades near Caledonia to the traffic disruptions of the Lanark Landowners Association, conveniently forget that Hillier’s group has not engaged in violence. Warren Kinsella’s attempt to embarrass John Tory through Hillier’s own words on a daily basis ultimately failed, both in number, and in the fact that some of Hiller’s statements were taken out of context.
The strongest statement against Hillier was covered in this blog entry here:
But let’s turn to the next two paragraphs of that June 14th blog entry, and the reasons Kinsella gives for the Liberals supposedly being so angry at their main opponent.
“How can John Tory actually claim to be a ‘progressive’ conservative, as he does,” I asked this writer, “when he has allowed a knuckle-dragger like Randy Hillier to be his candidate up near Ottawa? How can he, on the one hand, express moderate disapproval of Hillier before the nomination - and then, just on Saturday, applaud Hillier as he was introduced onstage? How can he - and I am quoting verbatim from the Lanark Landowners Manifesto, here, written by his candidate Hillier - embrace a man who has written this: ‘Using taxpayer’s dollars, our governments support and promote Quebec, Native, Arts, Homosexual, Urban and Multi cultures. However when it comes to the independent, peaceful rural culture in Canada, government support is stifling, suffocating and controlling.’ That’s what John Tory’s candidate, Randy Hillier, wrote!”
I was warming up, a bit, so I kept going: “Shame on John Tory! Shame on him! Shame on him for claiming to be an urban, urbane ‘progressive’ conservative, and then turning around and permitting the candidacy of someone who rails against ‘Quebec, Native, Arts, Homosexual, Urban and Multi cultures’! “
Well, that’s one interpretation. Another interpretation is that supporting and promoting Quebec, Native, Arts, Homosexual, Urban and Multicultural issues is fine, but that Hillier is upset that rural issues is, in his view, at the bottom of the list. Not having read the entire article to establish its context, I can’t say for sure.
The Liberal campaign team must have been delighted at the controversy that erupted over the religious schools funding phantom issue because, without it, they would have had nothing substantive to hammer Tory with, and it would have just been a matter of time before Ontario voters clued in — starting with rural Ontarians who, through the Liberal attacks on Hiller, were being constantly told that the Liberals didn’t care about rural issues.
And as for Frank Klees… well, actually, I can’t speak up in defense of Frank Klees proposals on health care. It’s a bad idea on a slippery slope, and Frank Klees is a dogmatic neo-conservative out of touch from the realities of the Greater Toronto Area, in my opinion. But then, there are individuals and policies in every party out there that you have to disagree with. Any progressive who voted Liberal, for instance, had to hold their nose and endorse the party that endorsed Tom Wappel.
Earlier I said that the strengths of John Tory that made him such a good candidate for mayor of Toronto — his affability, his intelligence, his willingness to think out of the box and forge a broad coalition to lead a diverse province — may have failed him in this campaign due to the depth of feeling over the religious schools issue. However, these strengths remain strengths. They remain everything that Ontarians want all politicians to be. They remain precisely those attributes which make Tory such a rarity — attributes which make him somewhat deserving to win this election.
At this point it seems unlikely that John Tory will find himself in the premier’s chair after October 10, but I wouldn’t write his political obituary just yet. Let us not forget that Dalton McGuinty had his ass handed to him back in 1999, but he held on, tried harder, and became premier in 2003. Indeed, that’s been the case of all of our elected premiers since Bob Rae — all lost elections before finally getting it right and taking power. Whatever you say about this campaign, John Tory expanded his party base. He added seats and he broadened his coalition. Most importantly, among many voters, he came across as an honest man. Unfortunately, it was just not his time.
Even if the Tories were to lose badly this election, they would be fools to put all the blame on John Tory and throw him out the door. The polls also suggest that Tory himself is more popular than his party, so controversies aside, he’s not the reason they lost. Indeed, it would seem that Tory is the Progressive Conservatives’ greatest asset at this point.
So I’m going to make a prediction: Tory’s time will come. Like McGuinty in 1999 and Harris in 1990, Tory deserves another kick at the can, and I think he will get it.
I am confident that John Tory will be the premier of Ontario in 2011.
Next: The Case for Howard Hampton.