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Provincial Election 2007: Defending Public Education

Vivian McCaffrey

Last  spring,  as  ETFO  began  preparing  for  the October  2007  election,  the  federation  looked back on  four  years during which the  government had worked constructively with education stakeholders to  address issues  affecting public education and the teaching profession. The Liberals also scored fairly high on keeping their 2003 election promises on education issues.

As a  result, the  recent  election  became  the first in recent times in which ETFO, along with other teacher  federations, did not campaign to unseat a government.  Teachers have developed a reputation at Queen’s Park for turning against unresponsive governments, so our approach  to the 2007 campaign is noteworthy.

In 1999 and 2003, the federation marshalled resources to defeat the Conservatives in response to regressive social policies and attacks on teachers and public education. The 1995 election followed the unpopular Social Contract imposed by the one-term NDP government. In 1990, teachers were at  odds with the Liberal government, which refused to grant  them a partnership role in governing their pensions.

The stakes were high in the most recent campaign. Last spring, polls showed the Liberals and Conservatives in a dead heat among decided voters. If the Tories gained momentum, the Liberals faced a minority government or possible defeat. History was not on their side: they had not won back-to-back majority governments since 1937.

ETFO’s Goals and Strategy

ETFO had three key election goals:

  • to re-elect a Liberal majority or a Liberal– NDP minority government
  • to ensure the NDP retained official party status and remained a viable force in the legislature
  • to raise the profile of our Close the Gap campaign, which highlights the $711 difference in funding between elementary and secondary students.

Our  election  strategy focused  on  providing members  with  information;  highlighting  the need to close the gap; and supporting candidates in targeted ridings.

ETFO’s Survey

Informing members of key election issues is an important goal of  any election strategy. Because only the Conservatives had released an election platform by early summer, ETFO surveyed the four main political parties on education issues, childcare,  child poverty, and the environment. We included the Green Party in our survey because it had developed significantly since the 2003 election and had gained popular support.

The parties’ responses formed the basis for a special election newsletter (distributed to members at the beginning of the school year) and for the election fact sheets distributed to locals and posted on the ETFO website.

When they were released, the Liberal, NDP, and Green platforms includ- ed positive commitments for education. The federation could not support the Conservative platform that promised to introduce full funding for private religious schools, expand standardized testing, and financially reward schools that scored well on EQAO tests.

Highlighting the Need to Close the Gap

The election also provided an opportunity to raise the profile of our Close the Gap campaign and solicit party support for the issue. Our broad media campaign included billboards, transit, newspaper, radio, and television ads, which gave the issue important profile. The Green Party platform included a commitment to close the gap, and during the campaign the Liberals announced  the creation of a $150 million fund to address class size and program issues in grades 4 to 8 as their next step in closing the gap.

These commitments were significant, given the unexpected and perhaps unprecedented impact of  a single issue – funding  for private religious schools. There is little dispute that this Conservative policy dominated political discourse during the campaign and played a major role in determining the party’s fortunes on October 10.

Supporting Candidates

ETFO’s most significant impact on the election comes from supporting individual candidates. As in previous elections, ETFO, in cooperation with our locals, supported Liberal and NDP candidates in ridings where we calculated we would have the most strategic effect. We allocated greater financial and human resources than we did in 2003. In 2007 the federation released members to work in 36 different campaigns. Our support extended beyond these targeted ridings: a number of locals made donations and released members to work for other candidates.

Our  support  of  individual  candidates  was extremely important: of  the 36  candidates we supported, 26 were elected or re-elected. Provincial and local donations assisted them in running effective campaigns. Members released to work in selected ridings provided profile for the federation, established important personal relationships with candidates, and gained  valuable political experience to take back to their locals and their classrooms.

What Lies Ahead?

The re-elected government faces many challenges over the next four years. The Liberals have raised expectations about continuing to make improvements to health care and education, addressing environmental and  energy issues, and  making real progress  in reducing child poverty. At the same time, the province is experiencing serious economic issues related to the fiscal  imbalance with the federal government, job losses in the manufacturing  sector,  and  financial  pressures from overburdened municipalities.

ETFO will have to work diligently at Queen’s Park and at the local level to ensure the important issues facing elementary education are fairly and effectively addressed by the Liberals in their second  term  in  office.  In  the  months  ahead, ETFO  members will be hearing about the next steps in the Close theGap campaign and how they can lend their support. As always, member engagement will play an important role in the ultimate success of this endeavour.