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The referendum no one refers to

Potentially biggest change to our voting system is engaging few local voters

The first referendum question asked of Ontario voters in 83 years has yet to grab the attention of people in the ridings of Vaughan and Thornhill, observers say.

On Oct. 10, voters across the province will not only get the chance to pick who gets into government, but also the very nature of the government they want.

The choices come down to keeping the first-past-the-post system or switching to a mixed-member proportional representation system.

Peter Shurman, Progressive Conservative candidate for Thornhill, says he has been asked about it “maybe once” in the 10 weeks he has been “out on the hustings”.

Under the proportional representation scheme, 90 redistributed ridings would replace the existing 107 ridings, and each party would submit an ordered list of candidates before each election. Voters would pick both a local representative and a preferred political party.

An additional 37 MPPs would be selected from the tops of the parties’ submitted lists, distributed according to the percentage of the vote attained by each party.

For proportional representation to pass on Oct. 10, it would need to win in 64 of 107 ridings and achieve 60 percent support province wide. In the event of a victory, Queen’s Park would need to pass the new system into law by Dec. 31, 2008.

The nuances of the mixed-member system can be difficult to grasp, and even more difficult to succinctly explain. It took Shurman, a radio personality, two minutes to get through his explanation. Randall Paterson, the Elections Ontario referendum resource officer for Vaughan, needed more than three minutes to do the same.

By contrast, Malcolm Kojokaro, Thornhill independent candidate and MMP proponent, breezed through his explanation.

“Current system: 40 percent of the vote, 60 percent of the seats, 100 percent of the power,” he said. “New system: 40 percent of the vote, 40 percent of the seats, 40 percent of the power.

“I’ve felt that that in terms of explanation for the referendum, it is the simplest way to tell someone who not only doesn’t care, but doesn’t know.”

Elections Ontario has established an education campaign intended to get the word out about the referendum. Initiatives include mass mailings, a concerted Web effort that includes a Facebook profile and YouTube video, and other advertising.

Referendum resource officers like Paterson – 107 of them across the province – add a touch of personal flair to the education campaign.

“I don’t want the people of Vaughan getting to the ballot box, looking at ballots and saying, ‘Oh, what’s this?’ ” Paterson said. “That would be a terrible thing.”

Daniel Rubenson, assistant professor of politics at Ryerson University agreed, saying that there’s a lot riding on the outcome of Elections Ontario’s $7-million education campaign.

“I would say if that’s not a success, then most people are not going to know the difference between first-past-the-post and mixed-member proportional when they get in to vote,” he said.

Still, with 2-1/2 weeks left until election day, the referendum question “isn’t really on the radar yet,” Rubenson said.

Since Confederation, Ontarians have been faced with only five referenda, and each of those dealt with booze. It has taken the provincial government more than 80 years to find a question quite so important to ask the public directly.

“I don’t want anybody anywhere appointed to anything,” Shurman said. “In the province of Ontario, I don’t want proportional representation.

“I want what we fought, and I have to say died for: representation by population.”

Vaughan Today
Friday, September 21, 2007
Page: 1
Byline: Philip Alves