Globe and Mail Update
TORONTO A furor over John Tory's unpopular proposal to fund faith-based schools does not appear to have altered the fundamental dynamics of the Ontario election campaign, a new poll shows.
More than 70 per cent of voters opposed the policy, but voters are sticking close to the positions they took before the campaign began last week: Forty per cent still support the Liberals, enough only for a minority government, while 34 per cent support the Progressive Conservatives, virtually unchanged.
The NDP, at 16 per cent, has not waged a particularly effective campaign in the first week, the poll shows, and almost half its supporters would consider switching to other parties. The Greens are the only party to have picked up momentum since the campaign began last week, rising two percentage points to 10 per cent.
Tim Woolstencroft of the Strategic Counsel said the poll shows that Mr. Tory is personally more popular than Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty. So if the PC Leader wants to overtake the vulnerable Mr. McGuinty, he needs to focus on new issues such as leadership, fiscal responsibility and fighting crime.
“The fact is, people are really objecting to it,” said Mr. Woolstencroft, referring to the faith-based schools proposal. “They just don't want religion to be mixed with school funding.”
The poll found that 71 per cent of those surveyed said they totally oppose having the province fund Jewish, Muslim and other religious schools. Those opposed include voters of all political stripes as well as 69 per cent of those described as visible minorities. Only 26 per cent of those polled support the policy.
Mr. Tory, who spent Monday campaigning in Cornwall, Ont., told reporters he believes that most Ontarians will eventually come to understand that funding for faith-based schools is a matter of fairness. “I think that Ontarians are an inherently fair people,” he said.
The policy does not appear to have hurt him personally. On the contrary, 37 per cent of Ontarians think Mr. Tory is the best person to be premier, the survey shows. Mr. McGuinty trails with only 31 per cent – an unusual position for an incumbent to find himself.
“The fact is, Ontarians are a little ambivalent about the McGuinty government,” Mr. Woolstencroft said. “They've done a good job. They've invested a lot in health and education. The province is on the right track. But there's the issue of the broken promises.”
Mr. McGuinty's broken promises – including the $2.6-billion annual health premium he introduced in 2004 after campaigning the year before on a pledge not to raise taxes – have hurt his popularity, Mr. Woolstencroft said. The broken promises are also a factor in the significant appetite for change, with 53 per cent of those polled saying they want a new government, he said. But with 23 days left before the Oct. 10 election, a majority of Ontarians believe the Liberals are on the right track and poised to win a second term.
The survey of 850 Ontarians was conducted from Sept. 13 to Sept. 16, and is considered accurate to within 3.4 percentage points, 95 per cent of the time.
The survey shows the Liberals picking up support in the Greater Toronto Area, a traditional stronghold for the party, while their grasp is slipping everywhere else in the province. The Liberals are leading with 47 per cent of the votes in the GTA. But their support outside the GTA is down 12 points from the 2003 election when they swept to power with 47 per cent of the votes. The Green Party is the major beneficiary of this softening support.
But within the GTA, the Liberals could run into trouble in the City of Toronto as the debate over municipal funding spills over to the provincial election. The city is a Liberal fortress. The party won 52 per cent of the votes in Toronto in the last election. But its support now stands at 43 per cent, while support for the Green Party has jumped to 11 per cent from 3 per cent in 2003.
Elsewhere in the province, Southwestern Ontario is shaping up to be a major battleground, with the Liberals and the Tories tied for 36 per cent of the votes. The New Democrats and the Greens are both attracting higher support, collectively garnering 28 per cent of the votes, 10 points higher than in 2003.
“The bleeding of a significant chunk of the Liberal vote to the NDP and the Greens is the key story in Southwest Ontario,” the survey says.
With a report from Gloria Galloway in Cornwall, Ont.