Tory is fast on his feet, but he has to dance around school issue

PC leader shone during TV debate but funding of education is the wild card

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The Gazette, Monday, September 24, 2007

There is a saying that you don't get a second chance to make a good first impression. And John Tory made the most of his chance in the Ontario leaders' debate, which was the Conservative leader's best opportunity to introduce himself to voters before the Oct. 10 election.

Conservative research shows Ontario voters don't know much about Tory. They sort of like him, but want to learn more about him. There's no better occasion for that than a televised debate like last Thursday's 90-minute encounter featuring Tory and NDP leader Howard Hampton squaring off against the Liberal incumbent, Premier Dalton McGuinty.

Tory won the debate on points, as both he and Hampton kept jabbing McGuinty on a long list of broken promises. "Wallop the leader," the Ottawa Citizen headlined the next day. But equally important, Tory won on form. After a very nervous start on his proposal to fund faith-based schools, Tory gained confidence as the debate wore on. He appeared just as he is - earnest and decent in a very Ontario way, and very smart. Yes, if he were married to your daughter, you would trust him to run the family business.

Full disclosure: I know John Tory. I worked with John Tory. John Tory is a friend of mine. And Dalton McGuinty is no John Tory.

During the tumultuous free-trade election in 1988, Tory and I were seatmates for 37 days aboard Brian Mulroney's campaign plane, which he ran. In such circumstances, friendships are made that endure a lifetime. He's true blue in every sense of the word.

A former principal secretary to Bill Davis at Queen's Park, and tour director on the most momentous federal election in the last half-century, Tory spent most of his career as an executive in Ted Rogers's media empire. But since he ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Toronto, and especially since he became Ontario Conservative leader three years ago, there's always been a question of whether he understood he couldn't be both the jockey and the horse at the same time. He has micro-management tendencies that drive his advisers crazy.

In the debate, Tory finally answered the question. He's now the horse. And he runs pretty well. But he's carrying a significant handicap - his proposal to fund separate schools, other than for Catholics, is definitely slowing him down and could cost him the race.

But it could also prove to be a winner, provided he can frame it as a matter of leadership. Or as he puts it in his campaign slogan - leadership matters.

Language and religion are historically tinderbox issues in Ontario, going back to the infamous Regulation 17, which in 1912 notoriously limited French-language education to Grade 2. It was only in 1985, nearly 120 years after confederation, that Bill Davis decided to fund separate Catholic schools all the way to Grade 13. This was a parting gesture by Davis, a gift to his friend Cardinal Emmett Carter, the archbishop of Toronto. But it was a poisoned chalice for the Conservatives, who lost the election that year after 42 years in power.

At the outset of the campaign, Tory promised to public funds for schools organized by non-Catholics, including Jews, Muslims, whatever. In all, there are 53,000 school kids outside the publicly funded system, and Tory tried to frame it in the debate as a question of inclusiveness and equity.

But 71 per cent of respondents in a Strategic Counsel poll oppose Tory's proposal, and only 26 per cent are in favour. Many of Tory's own rank and file, right wing Conservatives, don't like it one bit. His candidates are getting an earful about it at the door. And clearly if the Liberals can make this the ballot question, Tory will lose.

But Tory and Hampton both succeeded in making the debate about McGuinty's litany of broken promises, from his hated $900 health-care tax to his failure to take coal-generated electricity out of the hard-pressed Ontario power system.

And McGuinty, unfortunately for him, doesn't televise well. He has that Anthony Perkins look - the 100-foot stare in the 10-foot room. In the debate, he looked downcast, heavily reliant on his notes and unsure of where the light was on the camera. By contrast, Hampton, for a socialist, looked reassuringly like the guy next door. And Tory, after a very shaky start, was quite in command by the end of the evening.

Tory's strongest moments came at the end, when he pledged to restore Ontario's leadership role in Canada. And this in a province whose accustomed self-esteem has been shaken by the loss of 140,000 manufacturing jobs in the last five years, with an unemployment rate above the national average.

But the school-funding question is the wild card. Back in 1984, when John Turner announced that French-language rights in Manitoba were a question of provincial jurisdiction, Mulroney was in his office watching on television. "John Turner's got the Liberal Party on the wrong side of minority rights," he said. "I can't believe my luck."

In 2007, Dalton McGuinty has the Ontario Liberal Party on the wrong side of tolerance. But Tory will have to make his own luck.

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