When a football team is trailing and there are only a few seconds left on the clock, the quarterback will often pull a “Hail Mary" pass out of their playbook. That’s where they toss the ball as far as they can, from wherever they are on the field, even if they’re 50 or 60 yards away from the end zone — in effect, offering a prayer that one of their teammates will catch the pass for the improbable but winning touchdown.
It hardly ever works, but when it does, it’s magnificent.
When polls suggest you’re the least popular premier in the country and headed for certain defeat in the next election, you probably spend a lot of time with your colleagues thinking about what kind of Hail Mary policy idea could similarly produce an unexpected election victory.
Premier Kathleen Wynne and her people know they have to do whatever they can to lower the high prices people are paying for electricity. They’ve already taken eight per cent off the cost of your bill by dropping the provincial portion of the HST. And just the other day, the premier assured us there was more rate relief to come; the only question was, what form it would take.
The electricity rate reduction, by definition, did lower consumer costs. But it didn’t pack nearly the political wallop the Liberals hoped for, and it’s anybody’s guess as to whether further rate reductions will turn that tide.
I’ve been thinking for long time about what kind of Hail Mary policy idea could be truly effective in getting the Liberals out of their funk and forcing the people of Ontario to give them another look. There’s only one I can think of: ending the government's 150-year-old constitutional obligation to provide public funds to the Roman Catholic schools, and reorganizing education under one, unified, public system.
To be clear, I’m not advocating anything here. And there is certainly a long history in this province of voters punishing parties who mess up the delicate balance between politics, education, and religion. But the decision to stop funding a separate governance system for religious schools would be such a bold step, the public would have no choice but to take notice. And my guess is, the majority of Ontarians would favour such a move.
Here’s the argument:
At Confederation, our constitution obliged the Ontario and Quebec governments to fund parallel school systems for their minority populations. That meant funding a Catholic system in Ontario and a Protestant system in Quebec. It was one of the essential compromises that allowed Canada to be created.
Much later, successive Ontario governments topped up their funding for the Catholic system: the John Robarts government extended public funds to the end of Grade 10 in the 1960s, and the David Peterson government extended funding further, to the end of high school, in the 1980s. (Premier Bill Davis actually made the announcement to extend funding in 1984, but retired before he could implement his commitment.)
Frankly, those decisions have never sat well with huge chunks of the Ontario public, who have wondered why it’s fair, in multicultural Ontario, for Catholics to have their choice of two publicly funded school systems, while no other religion enjoys that privilege. The argument that the privilege is constitutionally guaranteed seemed less satisfactory as the years went on.
In 2007, then-PC leader John Tory, agreeing the status quo was unfair, promised to extend public funding to other religions. The public — presumably concluding that two wrongs don’t make a right — rejected his proposed solution and re-elected Dalton McGuinty with a second majority government.
Meanwhile, Quebec decided to end its commitment to Protestant schools and reorganized its education system into French and English boards, causing even more Ontarians to wonder why we were still so adamant about fulfilling our part of the Confederation bargain. (When Quebec decided to do away with Protestant and Catholic schools, it was granted a constitutional exemption by the federal government. Presumably Ontario could do the same.)
I have always thought that if Ontario wanted to follow suit, it would have had to be McGuinty to do it. As only the second Catholic premier in Ontario history, he would have had the religious “cover” to, in effect, defund the Catholic system. At points the former premier gestured toward the idea, acknowledging that if we had to design the education system from scratch, we certainly wouldn’t have created what we have today.
But McGuinty never did it. And as much as the secular and separate school systems have learned to co-operate more over the years, there is still considerable public antipathy to having four different governance systems (English Public, English Catholic, French Public, and French Catholic).
Photo courtesy of Ontario Liberal Caucus and licensed for commercial use under a Creative Commons licence. (See the uncropped version)
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