Public Values

Drumming up teacher support for the Liberals a tough feat for McGuinty

Education workers won't back new austerity priorities.

Little: If McGuinty goes ahead, many people will suffer Doug Little

It is the Sword of Damocles hanging over Queen's Park. Don Drummond, former TD Bank economist, has been hired by Premier McGuinty to make recommendations for the rapid reduction of the Ontario deficit and its elimination by 2018. Early musings by Drummond on the education file have placed emphasis on class size reductions and the teacher staffing of the Early Learning Plan. Drummond has also mused about a 1 percent increase in education funding. Domenic Giroux, President of Laurentian University and former provincial education bureaucrat, may be the primary education advisor to Drummond. This may not be good for teachers.

McGuinty is gambling with the future of the relationships he has established with the public education community. Primarily, teachers and education workers have supported "strategic voting" by supporting both the Liberals and the NDP in order to block the chances of the PCs to form a government, especially a government of the Mike Harris stripe. In the process, he is gambling with the future of the Liberal Party.

  "If [McGuinty] thinks there is enough room in the centre to survive, he is kidding himself."

There is one aspect of the problem that politicians don't get. Teacher pensions are heavily based on what teachers (and principals and most officials) make in their last five years of service. Settling for less than the inflation rate anywhere in those five years has a profound effect on the members' pensions for the rest of their lives on Earth, and the size of their spouse's benefits even after they have gone. Senior teachers are very influential within their unions and will be furious with their own leaders if they settle for a 0-1 percent increase.

The federal Liberals have suffered from the fact that on a great many federal issues, voters want the strong conservative position or the strong progressive position, not the weak vacillating centrist position. This may be the trap McGuinty is walking into.

All political leaders believe that if they just frame the issue in the correct way, a communications issue, the teachers will support them. Wrong. Wrong for Bob Rae, wrong for Paul Martin. McGuinty will very soon find out that the doctors will tell him to get stuffed. If he cannot successfully negotiate with the doctors, every other union in the province is watching. Teachers will not sit still and watch class sizes increase or ELP remove teachers or wage cuts. Teachers are not stupid. They understand that a one percent raise in a two percent inflation world is a wage cut and is unacceptable.

McGuinty is still premier with a one-seat minority. Exactly what position would he be in without the support of the teacher-supported Working Families Coalition, which hammered the PCs' Hudak in the last election? Exactly where would he be without the ongoing and direct support for the Liberal government? Where will he be in the next election without this support? No, the teachers will not understand, nor will they support, McGuinty's new austerity priorities.

If I were advising the teachers unions (I'm not and they will be fine without me), I would feature NDP leader Andrea Horwath on the cover of their next magazine, touting her tour of Ontario to save public services. I would call a joint press conference with Horwath endorsing her campaign. The Liberals will notice this, believe me. They need an internal discussion on this issue. Are we prepared to bring in an austerity program that will probably cost us the next election? With the federal position of the Liberals so precarious, a Liberal loss in Ontario will beg the existential question for the Liberals. Dwight Duncan will bluster that this "has to happen", but his own seat in Windsor could easily be a casualty in the next election.

The Rob Ford position as "austerity mayor" of Toronto ought to give the Liberals pause. Ford will not win the next Toronto election, and this has become clear. The Liberals will bleed in both directions. His cuts will not be enough for the right and will be too much for the left. If he thinks there is enough room in the centre to survive, he is kidding himself.

This would all be very interesting if it were not so serious. If McGuinty goes ahead, many people will suffer needlessly.

Doug Little is a former teacher and school board trustee. He has been an education writer for many years and runs his own publication, The Little Education Report.

Links and sources
  Drummond, McGuinty, teachers, education workers and austerity

Posted: February 02, 2012

  Public services

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