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 Toronto-Danforth and Beaches-East York, 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.

Robert Bisbicis, Progressive Conservative candidate for Toronto-Danforth, says he’s only come across it “once, at an all-candidates meeting”.

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 Bisbicis almost two minutes to get through his explanation.

In contrast, Peter Tabuns, Toronto-Danforth NDP candidate and MMP proponent, breezed through his explanation.

“Right now we have a system that allows parties to come to power with a minority of the votes,” he said. “MMP would essentially shape the legislature to reflect the votes as they’re cast by the citizens.”

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 — 107 of them across the province — add personal flair to the education campaign by talking to the media and any group interested in a face-to-face presentation.

“One thing I don’t think we’re doing a good enough job of is advertising the fact that there is even a referendum,” Bisbicis said. “A lot of people don’t know and they don’t know anything about it either. It may end up being that a lot of people reject it just because it’s slightly foreign to them, which would be unfortunate.

“It’s not something we get to decide very often — our electoral system.”

Daniel Rubenson, assistant professor of politics at Ryerson University, agreed, saying 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 a couple of weeks left until election day, the referendum question “isn’t really on the radar yet”, Rubenson said.

Since Confederation, Ontarians have seen 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.

“Proportionally elected representatives will only really be accountable to the party elite,” Bisbicis said. “I don’t know that we really need any more elitism going on in parliament. At the same time, I understand the need for a more representative vote.”

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Posted: Nov 2 2007 3:30 am
Filed in: NEWS
Edition: Toronto