The debate over public funding for religious schools has sucked the oxygen out of the 2007 provincial election, to the dismay of various interest groups who hoped their issues would be front and centre in the campaign.
Environmentalists, nurses, professors, university students, poverty advocates, parent activists, parents of autistic children, and property taxpayers, among others, have all seen their agendas overshadowed, to a greater or lesser degree, by the faith-based schools issue.
And most are bitterly frustrated as a result.
Laura Kirby-McIntosh, an autism advocate who was at Queen’s Park last week distributing a meticulously prepared report card on the party positions, says she is “devastated” by the lack of attention. “It’s been very, very hard to get our issue on the radar screen,” she says.
Echoes Bob Topp of the Coalition After Property Tax Reform: “Our issue didn’t get much attention despite efforts by ourselves and others to bring it forward.”
Annie Kidder, a parent activist and spokesperson for People for Education, laments that she has tried, without success, to get the media and the party leaders to focus on issues like declining school enrolment.
“Probably the biggest concrete issue facing our schools is declining enrolment,” she says. “It affects everything, is going to have an effect far beyond the school buildings, and we have no real strategy to deal with it.
“Other provinces have appointed whole commissions to look at it. In Ontario, for the most part, we are just looking the other way.”
Not everyone is dismayed by the lack of attention during the campaign, however. Take, for example, the environmentalists, whom one might suspect would be furious.
Their issue scores high on the list of voters’ concerns in the polls; yet there was not a single question on the environment in the televised leaders’ debate, and an elaborate assessment of the party platforms by a coalition of 13 environmental groups sank without a trace in the mainstream media, besides the Star.
But Rick Smith of Environmental Defence, one of the 13 groups in the coalition, says the ultimate goal was to ensure that green planks were included in the platforms of all the parties.
“By and large, that has happened,” he says. “We have a stack of very specific responses from the parties, and we’ll be able to hold the parties to them, no matter who wins the election.”
Doris Grinspun of the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario, is also pleased that many of her group’s planks made it into the party platforms, including a commitment to a target of 70 per cent of nurses working full-time (compared to 62 per cent today).
But in both cases the parties’ commitments might be more solid if the issues had been part of the province-wide election debate.
What is the solution to this problem? One idea is to add on more televised leaders’ debates, with each one focused on a specific basket of issues. If they can do that in American presidential elections, surely it can be done in Ontario.
Another would be for the federal government to lighten up on its rules regarding what constitutes “partisan activity”– a no-no for groups wishing to retain their charitable status. The environmentalists, for example, were told they could not grade the party platforms (“pass” or “fail”).
But in the end, campaigns take on lives of their own and head off in quite unpredictable directions. No institutional tinkering will change that reality.
Ian Urquhart’s provincial affairs column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org