Teachers fire the latest salvo against the Conservatives
Backlash in Ontario
Teachers fire the latest salvo against the Conservatives
It was an all-too-typical week in the embattled life of Ontario’s Conservative government. On the same day that more than 100 disruptive labor protesters were ejected from the provincial legislature, 1,800 high-school teachers on the northern edge of Metropolitan Toronto went on strike. Although the teachers and the York Region Board of Education typically blamed each other for the plight of their 28,000 students, both sides, unexpectedly, could still agree on a principal cause of their problem: Premier Mike Harris. Lynn Johnston, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation local, says that the board is cramming students into increasingly larger classes to save money. “But the Conservatives promised that the classroom—and the quality of education—would be protected from budget cuts,” he argues. Board vice-chair Karen Barker counters that the size of classes must increase—because the board’s provincial grants have dropped $30 million over the last two years. When asked about the premier’s vow, she retorts: “Our taxpayers have been hit unduly hard.”
Such bitter wars with words have become common in once-decorous Ontario. Barely two years into their mandate, the Conservatives are in the midst of a full-scale assault on the province’s institutions. They are re-
structuring school boards, hospitals and municipalities. They are suspending the right to strike of city, hospital and teachers unions during their first contract negotiations with those new entities—provoking threats of a public sector general strike. In a series of confusing and often contradictory announcements, they are shuffling provincial and municipal responsibilities for education and many social services, raising widespread fears that property taxes will skyrocket. “My sense is that people want some stability,” says veteran political strategist John Laschinger, a longtime Tory supporter. ‘The government has to stop advancing on all these fronts.”
The sheer pace of the proposed changes— and the fury it has provoked—have splintered Tory supporters and discomforted members of caucus. Some maintain that the government should stay the course. “This is not the time to flinch,” maintains former Tory campaign chairman Tom Long, who remains a trusted Harris adviser. “Previous governments have been paralyzed by wellorchestrated special-interest pressure groups.” Others suggest that the Tories should moderate the pace of their changes. “I don’t think the government should back off its core principles, but it might be more creative about how it implements its policies,” notes veteran Tory strategist Hugh
Segal. “That has a lot to do with the ability to compromise.”
So far, the damage to Tory popularity has been heavy—although few believe it is permanent. Last month, Environics Research Group Ltd. reported that Tory support had fallen to 33 per cent among decided voters, compared with 45 per cent for the Liberals and 17 per cent for the NDP. “They have done a lot of things in a lot of areas and that alarms a lot of people,” notes pollster Donna Dasko. “But I am surprised their support is not down in the 20s— which tells me they have a reasonable chance of winning the next election.”
In a poll released this week, Angus Reid Group Inc. reported that the Tories have the support of 35 per cent of decided voters—compared with 42 per cent for the Liberals and 16 per cent for the NDP. But senior vicepresident John Wright points out that fully 61 per cent of the respondents maintain that the Conservatives have put Ontario “on the right track.” To Wright, that indicates that many voters “like where they are going but they don’t like how they are getting there: they don’t like confrontation.”
The Tories’ difficulty is that the protests against their newest wave of proposals have barely begun. Their most damaging problem is their approach to health care: senior party officials privately admit that the government bungled when it announced hospital closures without adequate reassurances that health care would not suffer. Over the next two years, 25 out of 210 hospitals will close, including 11 of 44 Toronto institutions—and many voters fear that medical help will not be available when they need it.
More trouble lurks ahead—with the November municipal elections. Last week, the Tories tabled legislation to remove half the education property tax from municipal residential tax bills on Jan. 1,1998—because the province will pick up that estimated $2.5-billion tab. In return, the municipalities will become fully responsible for social housing, local public health services and ambulance costs. Those new responsibilities coincide with provincial plans to cut $667 million from municipal grants. Conflicting figures, most of them alarmist, abound about how such changes will increase each city’s bills, providing a handy target for many municipal councillors in the upcoming election. As Tory MPP Bill Murdoch told Maclean’s: “It’s already started: the anti-Conservative cam-
paign to get re-elected. The municipalities have to come out even from these changes. If municipal taxes rise, I am afraid that all the good things we have done will fall by the wayside in the next provincial election.”
In retrospect, it is difficult to see how the Tories’ election platform—the Common Sense Revolution—led to such breathtaking change. That platform promised welfare reform, lower taxes and less government. And although it talked about the elimination of waste and duplication, it did not mention massive institutional change. Queen’s University economist Tom Courchene, who is completing an in-depth study on the social, fiscal and federal evolution of the province, maintains that the changes have been profound: in effect, once the Conservatives completed their first revolution, they launched another to change municipalities and institutions. “They are having many more problems with their second revolution because it caught people out of the blue: it wasn’t road tested,” he says. “But the consequence of these revolutions is that the old Ontario, fiscally and internally, is gone.”
Many Tory strategists argue that they must lower the temperature in this new Ontario if they want to win re-election. They have bolstered their case by pointing out that more strident, right-wing parties may be waning in appeal in the province: the Reform party, for one, failed to make any inroads in the last federal election. In response, Harris’s office is privately seeking compromise on legislation to suspend the right to strike, sending out low-key feelers to the teachers unions suggesting that strikes might be permitted during certain months and among certain groups such as those who do not teach grades 12 and 13. The government also will unveil detailed plans this fall to retrain hospital workers for community care—and to boost home care. Tory strategists reason that if they can end their wars by early next year, voters will focus on their good economic news: the province’s economy is healthy—and the average private sector forecast for real provincial growth in 1998 is 3.8 per cent; by 1999 the Tories will also have cut the income tax rate by 30 per cent.
Peace cannot come soon enough for striking teacher Adel Kamel, science head at Dr. John Denison Secondary School in York Region. Last week, the 57-year-old, who has spent 27 years with the board, said he was dismayed to watch the ejection of labor protesters from the legislature on television. “The premier should talk with the labor leaders,” he urged. ‘They should not have to shout. That is not a healthy way to deal with differences.” In Ontario, it is almost certain that the din will rise before it ebbs.
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