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Premier Dalton McGuinty toured and spoke at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. (Jackson Lowen for the Globe and Mail)
Premier Dalton McGuinty toured and spoke at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. (Jackson Lowen for the Globe and Mail)

Foreign scholarships touch off Ontario culture war Add to ...

It was dropped casually into remarks delivered 12,000 kilometres from home. But speaking last week to a business crowd at a rooftop reception, the glittering Hong Kong skyline his backdrop, Dalton McGuinty touched off a debate that neatly encapsulates Ontario's emerging culture war.

At a time when conservatives - from the Tea Party to the Tim Hortons-branded federal Tories - are able to score points with anti-elitism, a Liberal Premier might reasonably be wary of attracting the same sorts of attacks. But that night, not for the first time, Mr. McGuinty seemed oddly unaware that he was practically waving a red flag in front of his opponents.

To him, perhaps announcing 75 four-year scholarships to be handed out each year to foreign graduate students didn't seem controversial. Even at an annual cost of $40,000 each, it might be a pittance to help raise the profile of Ontario's universities - a necessity if Mr. McGuinty's government is to increase by 50 per cent the number of foreigners studying in the province. That, in turn, is supposed to help internationalize education for Ontarians, keep many of the newcomers in the province after graduation and send others home to be ambassadors.

But the value of such an investment, however marginal relative to other post-secondary expenditures, might not be self-evident to as many Ontarians as Mr. McGuinty thought. Amid lingering economic uncertainty, with voters worried about how to put their own children through school, there appears to be some backlash against spending public funds to bring in kids from abroad.

The potential for that backlash was not lost on Tim Hudak's Conservatives. Wasting no time, they jumped all over the scholarship plan, holding photo-ops with aggrieved Ontario students, and circulating a petition calling for the offer to be revoked.

As the Tories launch their attacks and the Liberals mount their defence, it becomes ever clearer that Ontarians will have two very different philosophies to choose from in next fall's provincial election.

Mr. McGuinty's approach would be described by his supporters as enlightened and by his opponents as elitist. It boils down to the notion that it's his responsibility to act in Ontarians' long-term interests, even if doing so is at odds with their short-term ones.

The harmonized sales tax is the most obvious example: a policy that hits Ontarians in their pocketbooks now, but is supposed to help them find jobs later. There's also higher energy rates, meant to ensure a stable supply of power and green the economy. And bringing in more foreign talent, even if it means spending money that could otherwise go toward developing our own.

Although Mr. McGuinty comes by this mindset honestly, it seems to have been developed in part during trips abroad, when he's become convinced Ontario needs to take relatively dramatic action to compete.

Mr. Hudak hasn't taken those trips. But he's travelled around Ontario, and along with strategists who cut their teeth working for the federal Conservatives, he's identified a sense that the Liberals are out of touch with people outside the ivory tower or Bay Street.

Mr. Hudak's supporters would argue that he has more respect for everyday Ontarians - "hard-working families," as he prefers to call them - and more trust in them to compete on their own merits. His detractors would accuse him of small-minded populism, of telling people what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear.

The Tories' pitch is certainly the easier sell. The Liberals' requires voters not only to set aside their immediate interests, but also to accept that Mr. McGuinty is right about his decisions paying long-term dividends - this as trust in politicians runs even lower than usual.

There are occasions on which Mr. McGuinty doesn't seem to have that kind of fight in him. When he abandons his campaign against NIMBYism and scraps plans for a new power plant, or tries to score a few populist points of his own by railing against well-paid hospital executives, it can look as if he's yielding to the realities of the political climate.

But then he'll go and announce something like the foreign scholarships. And so the battle lines in the culture war continue to be drawn.

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