How will Ontario handle the political minefield of education?

By Steve Paikin - Published on June 17, 2016
Liz Sandals and Mitzie Hunter
New Ontario Education Minister Mitzie Hunter (right) with her predecessor, Liz Sandals. (Canadian Press/Peter Power)

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The Day One story of Premier Kathleen Wynne’s cabinet shuffle Monday understandably focused on the basics: who’s in, who’s out, and noting the historically high proportion of female ministers, who now make up 40 per cent of cabinet.

But with more time to read the shuffle tea leaves, some new questions arise, particularly as they relate to the government’s intentions on education.

For example, look at what the premier did when it comes to post-secondary education. She moved her most trusted minister — deputy premier Deb Matthews from London — into a renamed Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development. Matthews’ deputy minister is the highly regarded former president of Ryerson University, Sheldon Levy, who was the driving force behind the last budget, including a “free” post-secondary education for lower income Ontarians.

The signal the premier is sending with this Matthews-Levy tandem is pretty clear. She has combined talent, and experience with an understanding of how things get done in the public sector. One former Queen’s Park deputy minister described the pair this way: “There’s no better tandem in government. Full stop.”

Still unclear is what this tandem will actually do: create a new post-secondary funding formula? Help existing post-secondary institutions to merge or find new synergies? We’ll see. But few doubt they have the firepower to get done whatever is on their agenda.

Conversely, let’s look at what the premier has done with the Ministry of Education, meaning the people responsible for spending the $22 billion needed to run the elementary and secondary levels of our English, French, public, and Catholic school systems.

By making her minister of education, Wynne gave a huge promotion to Mitzie Hunter, the former head of CivicAction who became a politician just three years ago in a Scarborough byelection. Furthermore, the government transferred the well-respected and experienced deputy minister of education, George Zegarac, to another ministry and replaced him with a temporary deputy minister of education, who has only been in that ministry for less than a year. Nancy Matthews was considered a star bureaucrat when she worked at the municipal level, before coming into the Ontario Public Service. But the lack of experience with both of Wynne’s ministerial and deputy ministerial appointments is curious to say the least.

In the absence of evidence, people will speculate. Does this mean the premier, herself a former education minister, intends essentially to run the ministry herself? Does it mean the premier does not foresee much of significance coming down the pipe in education, and therefore she can get away with installing two relatively junior people there?

What message is being sent to the educational world writ large with these quite disparate appointments?

Education is always a political minefield. Despite no doubt having her heart in the right place, the previous minister, Liz Sandals, got herself in frequent trouble on many fronts. Her inability to explain why the taxpayers needed to pick up the tab for millions upon millions of dollars in union expenses (with no receipts backing up those expenses), as part of the new two-tier collective bargaining process was problematic.

Updating the sex-education curriculum proved to be much more troublesome than Sandals anticipated. Rather than lining up community groups ahead of time to support her plans, the former minister discovered the hard way many weren’t onside, when some parents pulled their kids out of school, rather than subject them to the new curriculum.

Sandals had a strong and longstanding relationship with Premier Wynne, which no doubt gave her the political cover to survive her missteps. Hunter does not have that history with the premier, and the next inevitable education controversy is never far away. Clearly, the premier thinks Hunter did a strong job as the province’s chief salesperson of the Ontario Retirement Pension Plan, which was her previous cabinet responsibility.

But the upgrade in skills needed to be a successful education minister is huge, and at the moment, Hunter doesn’t have, and isn’t surrounded by, oodles of experience.

Matthews and Hunter and their portfolios are worth watching in the months ahead. They can potentially represent some great success stories for the Liberal government, as it counts down to the next election in 2018. Conversely, the political graveyards are littered with the corpses of those who messed up, and caused their premiers untold headaches.

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