Ontario Liberals Have the Most to Gain, and Lose, from the Current Ontario Education Crisis

  • National Newswatch

Never let a good crisis go to waste was Winston Churchill's famous wartime observation. With an emboldened and enlarged Conservative majority government at Queen's Park, and their own party leaderless and mired in third place, these must often seem like dark days for the Ontario Liberal Party. But not quite as dark as they might be for education workers like teachers, early childhood educators and others who are about to have the government use extraordinary powers to impose an employment contract on them. Educators are losing their collective bargaining rights, but Ontario Liberals are the party with the most to lose politically in this crisis. Their choice is to seize opportunities to rebuild and strengthen the Liberal movement in Ontario, or risk being eclipsed and sidelined, perhaps for good.This isn't a crisis anyone wanted. The Ford government would have preferred to avoid labour strife but are clearly prepared to use any means necessary to win the battle. Educators would rather be in the classroom helping children like mine to learn, play and grow. As a parent, I know exactly how hard it is when schools are disrupted by strikes or lockouts. Doug Ford is gambling that parents like me will reward him for keeping schools open and children in the classroom. Time will tell if he is rewarded for his unprecedented decision to legislate a contract and invoke the notwithstanding clause to make it happen.By proactively planning to use the notwithstanding clause, the Conservatives are admitting their new legislation is unconstitutional. The Supreme Court of Canada has upheld that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects collective bargaining – and legislation that violates collective bargaining violates the Charter itself. Some will cheer the Ford government for “taking tough action” to ensure children and parents aren't inconvenienced by a strike or lockout. Others will see this as an antidemocratic attack on public servants by Conservatives more interested in their own partisan interests than respect for fundamental Canadian values. Ontario Liberals are siding with the law's opponents, and in doing so must take advantage politically of three key opportunities to revitalize and invigorate their party.Go On the Offensive. Third place parties without permanent leaders rarely have a chance to shine in politics. But this crisis is a chance for Ontario Liberals to stand up as fighters and show that despite two grave election defeats, they haven't lost their spirit. Liberal MPP's Mitzie Hunter and John Fraser are calling for the Speaker to review whether the government has violated parliamentary privilege, but that can only be a good first step. They can lead protests and filibusters, the way Liberal MPP Alvin Curling fought to stop Mike Harris from jamming through his “Bully Bill” almost 30 years ago. They can galvanize their base and reach out to new supporters, recruiting new Ontario Liberals through savvy social media advertising and creative content. Nascent Liberal Leadership contestant Nate Erskine-Smith is active on social media opposing this law, and other Grits need to stand up with him. They can mirror Pierre Poilievre's effective use of petitions to gather contact information and names of Ontarians who can be subsequently contacted by the party to donate, volunteer and continue to support Liberal causes. Whatever the tactics they choose, Ontario Liberals above all need to go on the offensive.Rebuild the Liberal Education Brand. Ontario Liberals were known for a generation or more as the party of education. Dalton McGuinty called himself the “Education Premier” and prioritized giving Ontario children the best education possible. Ontario Liberals will know the refrain off by heart: compared to the previous Conservative government, class sizes went down, test scores went up, more students graduated, and fewer schools were closed. Full Day Kindergarten was introduced, and so much more. Standing up for peace and stability in Ontario schools was once a cornerstone of Ontario Liberal policy and can be again. Students and parents won when educators and Liberals worked together to deliver better schools, and this crisis could remind Ontarians that cuts and constitutional crises aren't the only way forward.Restore the Liberal Party Relationship with Organized Labour. This is an opportunity to rebuild trust in Ontario Liberals among education workers that was undermined by Bill 115. Ontario Grits can demonstrate their commitment not just to education unions but to Ontario's powerful labour union movement, whether private or public sector. Eight provincial unions endorsed the Conservatives in the last election, but how many of them now worry their rights could be next to be legislated away? Would the Conservatives use the notwithstanding clause to prevent a construction union from stopping work on a private project like a housing development? Ontario Liberals need all the help they can get if they are going to climb out of third place and form government again. If Ontario's unionized workers feel Premier Ford is turning his back on them, Ontario Liberals have a golden opportunity to prove they are on the side of workers and deserve support.Ontario Liberals are the political party with the most to lose in this crisis. The Ontario NDP could emerge as the only effective voice standing up to the Ford Conservatives should Liberals fail to fight hard enough. The NDP may maintain their traditional support among organized labour regardless of their performance in this crisis. They will also continue to be the second-place Official Opposition and de-facto government-in-waiting. On the other hand, Premier Ford might pay a political price now for using the notwithstanding clause, but he doesn't face an election again until June 2026. That is plenty of time for voter anger to cool off.It is the Liberals who enter this crisis in the most precarious political situation. With few resources and fewer MPP's, and without a permanent leader, they can't afford to bungle their response to this issue and slide further in the polls. More Ontarians, including Liberal partisans, would write the party off as ineffective and out of gas, potentially permanently.Politics is about hard choices. Churchill understood that and in his nations moment of crisis rose to the occasion, rallied his county and overcame the odds. Ontario educators right now are looking for support and for someone to stand with them. Ontario Liberals need to choose if they will face this crisis with educators, rise to the occasion and see their political fortunes rise as well, or let an opportunity to return to political relevance in Ontario go to waste.John O'Leary is a Senior Consultant at Crestview Strategy and a federal and Ontario Liberal Party advisor.