A new poll for The Globe and Mail shows
that seven in 10 Ontarians are opposed to Mr. Tory's faith-based
schools proposal. The antipathy is shared by immigrants and
visible minorities, who might be more likely to take advantage
of the Conservative policy.
The opposition is very intense with one
of every two voters saying they "strongly object" to one of the
party's key planks. The opposition falls off slightly when the
issue is couched in the context of the public funding of
Catholic schools. But there is not enough movement to offer the
Conservatives much hope that a deeply secular Ontario is willing
to further mix religion and education.
The poll, by the Strategic Counsel,
shows that the religious-school issue is dragging down Mr.
Tory's fortunes. The main findings are relatively unchanged from
the firm's August survey - the Liberals, at 40 per cent, hold a
six-point lead over the Conservatives with the New Democrats at
16 per cent and the surging Green Party at 10 per cent.
The Conservatives will take some comfort
from the fact that their support level hasn't been affected by
the controversy that has raged for nearly a month about the
party's plan to offer religious schools public financing if they
meet Ontario standards for curriculum and teacher accreditation.
But the Tories would be doing much
better at this stage of the campaign if it weren't for the
schools policy, according to the poll.
Voters give the Liberal government solid
marks, with majorities saying they believe that the province is
on the right track and that they are better off than they were
four years ago. Mr. McGuinty gets little credit for this,
however, even though he has been Premier and has driven the
reforms in health, education and other areas.
Voters remain ambivalent about the
Liberal Leader, with more survey respondents citing their
preference for Mr. Tory over Mr. McGuinty as premier. It's a
highly unusual finding considering that is the job the Liberal
Leader has had since 2003. The poll suggests it's because 76 per
cent of voters, including six of 10 Liberals, believe his
government broke too many promises.
We have a situation where Mr. McGuinty
is boxed in by his reputation and Mr. Tory is dragged down by
his schools policy. Given this, the crucial battleground now
will be to work on those voters who, like 22 per cent of the
survey respondents, believe simultaneously that it's time for a
change in government and that the province is on the right
Mr. McGuinty needs to emphasize his
accomplishments in health and education but he also has to
question Mr. Tory's judgment for proposing to help religious
schools in an effort to drive down his good leadership numbers.
Mr. Tory needs to talk about little else but the how the health
tax came out of the blue and how the coal plants are still open.
Both sides know that negative campaigns
work. It ain't gonna be pretty.