Changes to Ontario elections include new ridings, spring fixed date

The Ontario Liberal government is tabling legislation this afternoon to create 15 new ridings that would be up for grabs in the provincial election in 2018.

Rules on election ad spending by third parties expected to tighten

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne makes an election system announcement at the Ontario Legislature on Thursday. Changes include a new fixed election date and more electoral districts. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

The Ontario Liberal government is tabling legislation this afternoon to create 15 new ridings that would be up for grabs in the provincial election in 2018. 

The government is also planning to switch the fixed date of the provincial election from the fall to the spring and to "strengthen the rules" surrounding election campaign advertising by third-party special-interest groups such as unions. 

The proposed new ridings would match constituency boundary changes recently made at the federal level. Most of the new seats are in the Greater Toronto Area. The bill, if passed, would bring the number of seats at the Ontario Legislature to 122. It currently stands at 107.  

During a news conference at Queen's Park on Tuesday, Premier Kathleen Wynne made no commitment about precisely how the election advertising rules will be strengthened.

Third-party advertising has more than tripled since the 2007 election to $8.7 million in 2014.

"We're going to look at this as a blank slate and figure out what needs to be done," Wynne said.  "We haven't made any decision but I think it's something that needs to be studied."

But she all but rejected the idea of imposing caps on political donations by unions and corporations.

"I believe that individuals and organizations should have the ability to take part in the democratic process," Wynne said. "We need to look at the role that third parties play and third party advertising is an important part of that discussion."

PCs want $150K spending cap

Special interest groups, including teachers' unions and the Working Families Coalition, spent $8.6 million on advertising in the last campaign, more than any single political party spent.

The vast majority of the ads attacked the Progressive Conservatives. The PCs want election advertising spending by interest groups capped at $150,000 per group. A similar limit is in place at the federal level. 

New Tory Leader Patrick Brown said he hoped the Liberals "were not being cute" about third-party advertising and will introduce real reforms to stop massive spending that he called "an abuse" of the democratic process.

"Third parties spent more than all the political parties combined, and that's not right," said Brown. "My worry is it's all
going to be talk and no action."

Wynne said the proposal to switch the fixed election date to the spring is primarily to avoid potential conflict with federal and municipal campaigns. 

Last year's Ontario election was in June, but it was triggered after the opposition parties vowed to vote against the budget, which would have defeated the then-minority Liberal government.

Wynne not ready for online voting

While Ontario plans to switch election dates, Wynne isn't ready to try online voting. 

"I am not opposed personally to using technology in the election process, not in any way," Wynne said. "Are there uses for online (voting), is there a way of integrating it? I just think jury is still out on that."

The NDP complained Wynne didn't consult the opposition parties or the public before announcing changes to the way elections are held.

Ontario also plans to register 16- and 17-year-olds but keep the voting age at 18, which Wynne said would be a good way to engage young people in the democratic process and expand on the civics lessons they get in Grades 5 and 10.

"Right now, it's an abstract conversation, and I think it would be helpful for it to be more concrete," she said.

If the reforms are approved, Elections Ontario would work with schools and the driver's licence program so teens are registered and ready to vote when they turn 18.

Thursday is the last day for the Legislature until mid-September. MPPs are returning to their ridings for the summer. 

With files from CBC's Mike Crawley


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