Doug Ford, if he wins the Ontario Conservative leadership and the provincial election, plans to increase parental control over sexual education. This would be tragic. But it might be smart politics.
Tragic, because such policies inevitably lead to an increase in pregnancies among teenage women. But smart, because it plays to several key elements of the conservative coalition.
Other conservatives, however, abhor such tactics. It will be interesting to see which side prevails.
Conservatives win when they forge a coalition of economically conservative native-born and immigrant voters: middle-class white voters in suburbs; middle-class immigrant voters in suburbs; voters in towns and on farms. Put them all together, and you can own 40 per cent of the vote – a majority government.
Some of these voters are not just economically conservative; they are also socially conservative. In the 2015 federal election, I spent two weeks in the riding of Mississauga Centre, talking to dozens of people about their concerns. Many of the immigrant voters – they hailed from developing countries such as the Philippines or India or China – were unhappy with the new provincial sexual-education curriculum, which they thought taught too much too soon, with too little parental control.
Of course, education is a provincial, not federal, jurisdiction; the Liberals won Mississauga Centre handily. But many voters were concerned about sex-ed then, and it's a safe bet they are still concerned. That's Mr. Ford's gamble.
"Parents, not governments, are our children's first educators," he declared earlier this week. "The sex-ed curriculum should be about facts, not teaching Liberal ideology. Parents should have the first and final say on what they want to teach their kids."
It's hard to know exactly what this means, but we can infer: Parents should have increased rights to pull children from classrooms while sex-ed is being taught. The curriculum should focus on the biology of human sexual reproduction, without getting into such "Liberal ideology" as respecting sexual and gender minorities – or even full equality for women, for that matter.
Mr. Ford is hoping that this discomfort over sex-ed could drive support among socially conservative voters, both immigrant and native-born, to his side. He may be right. But the consequences would be just awful.
According to World Bank data, pregnancies in Canada among women 15 to 19 years of age declined by more than 80 per cent between 1960 and 2015. More than eighty per cent! This is such wonderful news.
Teenage mothers and their babies face increased health risks, and are at high risk of living in poverty throughout their lives. It is believed that the reduction in teenage pregnancies has also contributed to the decrease in crime over the years – fewer poor, young men looking for trouble.
Most developed countries have greatly reduced teenage pregnancies over the past five decades, through a combination of sexual education in schools, increased availability of contraception and greater autonomy for women.
But the United States has a teenage pregnancy rate more than twice that of Canada. There, sex-ed curriculum is often developed at the district level, and in many districts is taught badly – focusing on abstinence rather than contraception – or not taught at all. A quarter of all school districts in Texas have no sex-ed programs. Texas has the fifth-highest teenage pregnancy rate in the country.
When teenagers don't learn how to prevent pregnancy and STDs through contraception, more teenagers become pregnant, which is good for no one.
"The kind of nostalgia that is being advocated by Doug Ford is really misplaced," says Rebecca Bromwich, a law professor at Carleton University who studies the interaction of women, youth and the law.
Why, then, would Mr. Ford advance such policies? "He's dog-whistling." Some members of the conservative coalition are uncomfortable with notions of full equality for sexual minorities, or even for women. By dragging sex-ed back onto the political agenda, Mr. Ford is signalling that he is their kind of candidate.
The question is how far are Christine Elliott and Caroline Mulroney, the two other Tory leadership candidates, prepared to go down this path. Many economic conservatives disavow the social-conservative agenda. Many warn that the party risks cutting itself off from the support of millennials, now the largest cohort of voters, with such social intolerance. These are important political questions.