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Why Ontario is allowing mixed martial arts Add to ...

When Ontario’s first Ultimate Fighting Championship event is held this spring in Toronto, there will be plenty of blood inside the ring.

But considering the number of Liberals biting their tongues, there might be a little bloodshed already.

Although there was nary a dissenting peep from Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals when the event was recently announced, that was a far cry from what happened when the question of allowing mixed-martial arts into the province was first presented to Mr. McGuinty’s cabinet.

What happened behind the scenes then, and since, offers an intriguing study in gender politics – a party with a predominantly female support base grappling with an issue that caused deep discomfort among the women in its most senior ranks.

Although Mr. McGuinty himself was seen as the main obstacle to the controversial sport’s expansion, his reluctance held up by Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak as the latest evidence of overbearing nannyism, the Premier was ready more than a year ago to give it the green light. But his ministers were a different story, with an instinctive reaction against mixed martial arts’ perceived barbarism trumping arguments that the popular sport would bring millions of dollars in revenues.

The divide was not purely along gender lines; Jim Bradley, a veteran minister known for playing a dissenting role in cabinet, was among those vocally opposed. But according to multiple sources, it was female ministers – among them Kathleen Wynne, the Transportation Minister and co-chair of the Liberals’ 2011 re-election campaign, and Health Minister Deb Matthews – who led the charge against MMA.

So Mr. McGuinty temporarily abandoned the issue. In late 2009, he’d said publicly he had an “open mind” about letting in UFC; by February of 2010, he was dismissing it as “not a priority.” In March, he said he was “tapping out on this one.”

Although polls showed overall support for allowing MMA, many Liberals were happy with the party’s position. Aligning Mr. McGuinty with such a bloody spectacle, they argued, would undermine his family-friendly brand. And for the sort of female voters who make up the strongest part of their party’s support base, it would be a major turnoff.

Those Liberals were startled, then, by the surprise news last August that UFC would be coming to Ontario after all.

The official story is that the cause was successfully championed by then-Consumer Affairs minister Sophia Aggelonitis. The rookie cabinet member, who wasn’t at the table when the issue first came up, is said to have made a strong case to caucus that it was time to move forward. And to some extent, she no doubt helped bridge the divide.

But since the decision was not brought back to cabinet for approval before it was announced, it was in effect a unilateral decision made in the Premier’s office.

Why exactly that happened has been the cause of some speculation in provincial circles, with ominous rumblings about the role of lobbyists. But the about-face likely had more to do with simple political calculations.

Through the second half of 2010, the Liberals were in the mode of “taking out the trash” – trying to remove potential irritants before this year’s campaign. And MMA was deemed to fit the bill.

Not many votes, strategists reason, will be cast against them because of a decision more than a year before the election to allow a sport already permitted most other places. But not allowing it would have bolstered, in some small part, Mr. Hudak’s message that “Premier Dad” thinks he knows better than Ontarians what’s good for them.

Gender politics cutting both ways, that message might have resonated with the Tories’ predominantly male base – conceivably helping motivate some of its younger members to get out and vote. An Ipsos poll, conducted last summer, suggested that among men under the age of 55 – a demographic pivotal to Mr. Hudak’s success – support for allowing MMA was about 70 per cent. That was stronger opinion than among women aged 35-54, probably the Liberals’ best demographic, who were almost evenly divided.

The fact remains that some of the most powerful women in the province felt very strongly indeed. But if they could get past it, or at least bite their tongues, the Liberals will be hoping that others offended by the spectacle in the Rogers Centre this April will be able to do likewise.

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