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McGuinty moves on electoral reform

Citizens will evaluate voting system

'People of Ontario will have their say'

The toronto Star, ROBERT BENZIE, QUEEN'S PARK BUREAU, Nov. 19, 2004

Ontario voters could see radical changes to democracy, including proportional representation, in time for the 2007 election, says Premier Dalton McGuinty.

Unveiling his much-anticipated democratic reform initiative yesterday, McGuinty said Ontarians should expect a transformation of their political system.

Asked if proportional representation — where seats are given to parties based on their share of the province-wide vote — could be in place within the next three years, he replied: "That's a possibility."

"Some, as might be expected, have already expressed opposition to this very exercise," the Premier told about 150 participants at the Dialogue on Democracy conference at Queen's Park.

"They argue that our first-past-the-post system is clearly the best and, anyway, consideration of an alternative is simply too complex an undertaking for Ontarians who are not expert in the field," he said.

"To me, that attitude smacks of paternalism from a bygone era. When it comes to how the people elect their representatives, the people of Ontario will have their say."

A first-past-the-post win goes to the candidate in each riding with the most votes, and the party with the most seats almost always forms the government.

McGuinty's comments came as he announced a "citizens' assembly," where "randomly selected" residents — likely one from each of Ontario's 103 ridings — will examine the current voting system and propose changes. The group would be asked to consider a referendum on proportional representation — possibly before the Oct. 4, 2007 provincial election.

As well, a 12-person "citizens' jury" will be created to look at possible reforms of how political parties are funded and election campaigns are financed.

Details of both the assembly and the jury will be finalized early in the new year.

But the most striking — and controversial— change would be the adoption of some form of proportional representation.

Under such a system, Ontarians could see a dramatically different looking Legislature.

In the 2003 election, the Liberals won 46.6 per cent of the popular vote but 70 per cent of the seats (72 of 103). The Conservatives won just 24 seats with 34.6 per cent of the vote and the New Democrats seven seats with 14.7 per cent.

Attorney-General Michael Bryant said a prominent "non-partisan" person would be selected to chair the citizens' assembly.

"It's got to be somebody who isn't showing up ... with any kind of baggage," said Bryant.

British Columbia spent $5 million on a similar electoral reform commission and will hold a referendum in May on whether to change their system to a "single transferable vote" (STV) ballot.

Under STV, voters preferentially rank candidates.

Conservative Leader John Tory praised McGuinty for moving forward with reforms, but expressed concern about an end to the "stability" of majority government if proportional representation is adopted.

The last premier to win more than 50 per cent of the popular vote in Ontario was Liberal Mitch Hepburn in 1937.

"There are downsides to majority government that can be alleviated to some extent by parliamentary reform ... as opposed to electoral reform," said Tory.

"The question of looking at reform is a valid one and the citizens' juries is the right way to go about it ... which is why I'm quite open-minded on it."

University of Toronto political science professor Graham White said he was "very encouraged" by the Liberals' moves.

"It says that they still believe in their democratic agenda, which is not particularly a vote getter," said White.

"It's going to make a big difference in my view if the people come up with some interesting alternatives.

"For better or worse, he's turning it over to the people."