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Ontario's 'education premier' fails on sex education

Dalton McGuinty has spent a lot of time and effort trying to live down the perception that he's weak.

This week, the Ontario Premier suffered a setback on that front. And the irony is that it happened because of a strategic meltdown on his favourite file - the one for which he hopes to be remembered.

Mr. McGuinty is supposed to be the "education premier." He's poured tons of resources into the public system, won re-election defending it, and established early learning as his legacy project. But with sex education, he met his match.

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Thursday's scrapping of the province's new sex-ed curriculum, just two days after it came to light, was the embarrassing part. But what led up to it was a terrible job of what's referred to in political circles as issues management.

The new program should not have been all that difficult for Mr. McGuinty's Liberals to explain to the public. It wasn't radical compared to the current one, introduced 12 years ago by Mike Harris's Conservatives. (The difference was more in the language than in the subject matter.) Nor would it have been unusually explicit compared with other jurisdictions; in Canada, it would have been around the middle of the pack.

The Liberals could have calmly explained that they were just trying to ensure kids had the right information before they became sexually active - that the clearer the guidelines, the better the chances safe and healthy choices would be made. And they could easily have lined up a parade of moderate advocacy groups to make that point.

Instead, either by accident or by design, the government buried it. Details of the new program went up on an official website in January, and for three months the Liberals made nary an effort to explain it to parents. So this week, religious groups did the job for them - casting the curriculum as a sinister attempt to indoctrinate small children with tales of sexual adventure

Within days, if not hours, Liberal MPPs had constituents calling their offices to complain that the province wanted to explain anal sex to eight-year-olds.

That certainly wasn't the plan, but the government had only itself to blame for the misinformation that was flying around.

It now appears Mr. McGuinty himself only learned of the new curriculum this week . If that's the case, someone screwed up - because by most accounts, the Premier takes an active interest in education issues far less combustible than this one.

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Regardless, there's a good number of disgruntled Liberals taking issue with the way Mr. McGuinty handled the controversy once it broke.

Even with the government's critics having gotten a head start, those Liberals were licking their chops at what seemed to be a promising wedge issue. To them, it looked like Tim Hudak's Conservatives had fallen into a trap by aligning themselves with the likes of controversial evangelical leader Charles McVety in opposing sex ed - the sort of plunge into divisive moral issues that Mr. Harris carefully avoided as he rallied Tories around fiscal conservatism in the 1990s.

That was the message the Liberals advanced for about 36 hours, before Mr. McGuinty handed Mr. Hudak - and Mr. McVety - a big victory by announcing a "serious rethink."

The storyline is now that the government was forced to back off from an intrusive attempt to usurp parents' decisions how to raise their children. And it's also that, with the right amount of pressure, Mr. McGuinty can be forced into capitulation.

The shame of it, from the Liberals' perspective, is that Mr. McGuinty has recently demonstrated a legitimate willingness to make and stick with controversial decisions - the harmonized sales tax and the ongoing fight with the province's pharmacists being two obvious examples. But on a straightforward, hot-button issue that really had Ontarians talking, a lack of strategic planning conspired with a degree of panic to make the Premier look weak.

It might not be enough to revive those old Conservative taunts that Mr. McGuinty is "just not up to the job." But for the first time in a long time, the Premier looked this week like he wasn't in full control.

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Political Feature Writer

Adam Radwanski is The Globe and Mail's political feature writer. More

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