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THE SALON

The Salon is ONW's weekly gathering place where three of Canada's brightest and most respected political strategists come together to analyze national issues affecting Ontario. Rick Anderson is former senior advisor to Reform Party Opposition leader Preston Manning; Anne McGrath was Chief of Staff to the late NDP leader Jack Layton; and Richard Mahoney, former Liberal advisor to Rt. Hon. Paul Martin. 



Anne McGrath:

The Ontario Liberals' shameless courtship of teachers is coming home to roost. The unrest in classrooms has escalated into hand-to-hand combat. Any hopes that a new Liberal leader will be able to recapture the support of teachers and education support workers are futile. The education sector is feeling rejected, taken for granted and even demonized. This has been a scorched earth policy and efforts by a new leader may be welcomed but won't result in a return to support levels seen in the last elections. 

 

Rick Anderson:

Hate to be cynical, but it does not seem to be that difficult to (a) gain or (b) lose the support of teachers, or at least teachers' unions. Pretty much anyone can figure that out. This time around, I think the teachers unions have done a particularly poor job communicating that their interest is broader than self. 

 

Richard Mahoney:

Anne calls efforts that the Liberal government has made to win overwhelming support from teachers as "shameless." That sounds like sour grapes coming from a party that lost that support. It also ignores significant accomplishments on full day kindergarten, test scores and generally taking Ontario from the back of the pack in education to a world-leading jurisdiction. It is too bad that the labour issues overshadow those accomplishments. The government got deals with OPSEU, OMA, AMAPCEO and some teacher's unions, adding $1 billion in deficit savings. 

 

Anne McGrath:

I think there were ways to deal with the teachers and support staff unions that could have led to negotiated settlements. There was a heavy-handedness that leaves a legacy not easily overcome. Much like the federal Liberal party I believe there has been too much reliance on the belief that just saying "we're not as bad as the others" is a winning strategy. We saw how that played out in the Kitchener-Waterloo by-election.

The Liberal government has done some good things in education but the approach of the last few months has been tired and knee-jerk. Although the public has limited patience for either side in this dispute I think they will place the ultimate blame with the government. 

 

Richard Mahoney: 

Anne's "we're not as bad as the others" sounds like an apt summary of the NDP's entire policy solution in education. We would be nicer, they say, but still reduce the deficit. Not serious. The bottom line is that the government had to find $1.3 billion in savings from public sector unions, and they had to do it this year. They negotiated deals with doctors, public servants and some teacher unions. And they got legislation passed in a minority situation to deal with those they could not reach a deal with. Tough, but they got it done. What did the NDP do again?

 

Rick Anderson

The "we're not as bad as the others" strategy is a good way to put it, and part of the reason Liberal parties find themselves behind the eight ball federally and in other provinces. (As a sidebar, it was striking to take note the NDP were more prudent than the Liberals during last week's Idle No More spat, while the Liberals jumped on it to play politics.)

 

Anne McGrath:

Although it can sometimes be a good strategy to rely on your opponents to make the case for you, it certainly isn't working in this case. Voters look at the mess that has been created in the education sector, along with other grievances that inevitably pile up with a long serving government and then look to see if there are alternatives. I'd argue that in the last election the alternatives weren't ready enough. But both the NDP and the Conservatives look like they've been taking stock and re-tooling. They both have wind in their sails and the question is whether the Liberal leadership campaign can pull back some of the energy and present themselves as new enough, listening enough, and ready to take on the serious issues. 

 

 

Rick Anderson:

I must admit I don't hear as much as I used to from parents about the quality of education, so both the anecdotal and what passes for evidence seems to suggest improvement. On the other hand, it is clear that Ontario's deficit situation has emerged as a real problem. Good for Premier McGuinty for - finally - turning his attention to this. His green energy plans might have been more cut-worthy than teachers, but that's the choice he made. But last week at least, the teachers unions gave McGuinty a helping hand, with   thing they did (or sort of did) on Friday. Talk about a good way to get everyone mad at you - without scoring any points in your favour. Pointless.

 

Richard Mahoney:

Andrea Horwath is liked, Anne, but has presented no serious blueprint or ideas for Ontario. The contrast with the Liberal government, which has almost too many ideas, is staggering. That said, I think Anne is right to suggest that the leadership campaign does present the Liberal Party an opportunity to re-energize itself, and that is what seems to be happening. Two smart, competent women as frontrunners. Some new generation ideas. I'll say this: two months ago everyone believed that Andrea Horwath and Tim Hudak were about to defeat the government and call an election. I'll wager that the new Premier will get a chance to govern for a while and the opposition leaders won't risk calling an early election. The test will be can the new Premier find some common ground to make minority government work. 

 

Anne McGrath:

I'll be watching to see what impact the dispute with the teachers and support staff has with the delegates to the convention. In a delegated convention it will be easy to bypass the current political situation and focus on the (sometimes) narrower concerns of delegates focused on other issues. A leadership convention is an opportunity for some more or less unpleasant truths to surface and for a reset if necessary. In this case there seems to be a reluctance to challenge the current party direction (understandable with a minority government) but if the convention ignores the current context they won't be well placed to present viable alternatives from different perspectives. 

  

Richard Mahoney

Here is one thing I know about leadership contests like this - this is now a "Team of Rivals" situation. Abraham Lincoln was not the most popular or best-known candidate when he won the Republican nomination. He was the one who had the broadest appeal. That is how Dalton McGuinty did it in 1996. Kathleen Wynne and Sandra Pupatello are closely matched in delegate numbers. It will all be about who can mount the best argument and broadest appeal to those not yet supporting them. A smart plan to do a reset,

while still maintaining the fiscal framework and success Rick and I mentioned earlier, will be the challenge. I think Kathleen Wynne is best positioned to achieve that, but, as a wise friend of mine likes to say, there are no facts in the future!

 

Rick Anderson

I see Richard has been to the movies over the holidays. (Smart to cite a book, though.) Wynne does not come across publicly as particularly focused on the fiscal framework; that would be new. Strikes me as a little bit from the other school. But these things being what they are, the time between now and the final vote will probably be a real roller coaster, more politics and personality than policy. The Liberals look set to have their leadership selection determined by old-style wheeling-dealing amongst rival candidates and their back rooms: that can be dangerous from a public perceptions angle. Will be heartburn for the candidates, and fun to watch.

Posted date : January 16, 2013
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