It was yesterday at 9 a.m. when I realized John Tory was in serious, serious trouble. I realized it while staring at a box that distributes copies of 24 Hours, a thin newssheet distributed free at Toronto's subway stations and bus stops.
The cover of Monday's edition contained no news. Instead, it was a full page advertisement from Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, which went like this: "You know what I love about our publicly funded schools? They're public! Whatever their race, creed or cultural background, our kids attend the same schools. Together. They learn together. Play and laugh and sing together. Help each other with algebra ..."
And so doth the mother's milk flow, until we get to the inevitable punchline about how evil John Tory wants to destroy all this by handing $500-million to private religious schools. Never mind the fact that when Dalton McGuinty actually attended a state-funded Catholic school as a tyke, he never played with a Muslim, or laughed with a Hindu, or sung Hava Nagila with a Jew, or taught algebra to a Protestant.
Never mind all that, because politics is about symbolism -- especially in a place like Ontario, where voters are more or less content, and the election is being fought between two virtually indistinguishable white, middle-aged males who embrace the same policies on just about every issue under the sun.
And make no mistake: The symbolism in the ad is brilliant. McGuinty is about love and togetherness. Tory is about rancour and division. Give the Premier's people credit. Even if it's the other guy who makes the mistake, it takes a pro to exploit it properly. And that's what the Mc-Guinty spin machine is doing.
So how exactly did Tory step into this mess? It couldn't have been the polls that led him into it. According to an Ipsos-Reid survey reported in yesterday's Post, 62% of Ontario voters said they opposed Tory's school-funding plan. My theory? Blame it on the chicken.
I am talking here of the rubber chicken dinners every politician attends in hopes of securing endorsements from this or that civic group. A generation ago, this meant going to the Rotary Club, or a local church. But times have changed in multicultural Ontario. And the hottest rubber-chicken gigs are now splashy dinners hosted by ethnic and religious groups in grand hotel ballrooms.
As a journalist, I've been to a thousand of these. Community grandees bring their families and make expensive bids at silent auctions. Airline tickets to Tel Aviv or Delhi or Cairo or Beijing are raffled off. Speeches are made, fundraisers are thanked, a slick video from the old country is displayed on giant screens and then John Tory or some similar specimen is trotted out to say a few decorous words about diversity.
Then we all look under our plates for a sticker. The winner claims the centre-piece. We eat dessert and then everyone goes home.
I'm betting that Tory hatched on his school-funding idea sometime between the chicken and the dessert -- when he was shaking hands with a steady stream of parents, each of whom trotted up to the head table to tell Tory why the state should pay for his kids' religious education. In a private session after the event, community leaders gave Tory the same message. "This is what our base wants," they told him. "This issue will guide how our people vote."
Then Tory gets the bright idea: The grassroots have spoken. Polls be damned. Religious school funding is the issue that will unite the new, multicultural Ontario.
Except, of course, it hasn't. Because the people you meet at these rubber chicken dinners aren't representative of the ordinary Ontarians who eat their chicken at home, or out of a drive-thru bag. Being self-selected ethnic-group activists who take their cultural identity seriously enough to spend small fortunes on private religious education, they aren't even representative of the broader, more assimilated ethnic communities they purport to represent.
The only way to dethrone a smooth, dogmatically centrist, (relatively) popular politician like McGuinty is by finding a populist wedge issue and torquing it hard. But Tory has never been able to do that because he's a risk-averse politician who instinctively embraces the elite consensus on all the issues that really matter. And so he's wasted his time in opposition, issuing knee-jerk press releases about gun violence, factory layoffs and tinker-toy spending scandals, but never giving anyone any indication that he'd change the way the province is run in any substantive way.
Then, the one time he makes a bold leap, he does it by following not the will of voters, but a handful of self-interested sectarian elites. That's what you get for eating too much rubber chicken.