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Toronto Star

December 9, 2003

Ministers may face $500 fines:
Liberals explore new voting methods -- State your choice by phone or Internet?


Changes ranging from $500 fines for cabinet ministers who play hooky to Internet and telephone voting are being pushed by the provincial Liberal government as part of a democratic reform package.

The package could ultimately include fixed election dates and a new way of choosing MPPs.

"The time has come to bring our 19th-century traditions in line with 21st century Ontario. It's time to renew our democracy, for a change," Attorney-General Michael Bryant said in announcing the plans.

To that end, the Liberals will create a Democratic Renewal Secretariat to promote fixed election dates every four years and explore alternate ways of voting.

It will also study proportional representation under which the number of seats a party gets in the Legislature reflects its percentage of the popular vote as opposed to the traditional first-past-the-post system.

"We will explore Internet and telephone voting, transparent and effective limits on money in politics, (and launch) an open debate on the winner-take-all voting system," said Bryant.

As well, the Liberals will force ministers to attend two-thirds of question periods over the four-year life of an administration or face cash fines.

The government also said it would:

Ban governments from partisan political advertising.

Force the disclosure of the salaries of all hydro executives paid from the public purse.

Give the provincial auditor the power to conduct value-for-money audits of institutions and programs in the broader public sector, such as hospitals, school boards and crown-controlled corporations.

Premier Dalton McGuinty, who was in New York City for a speech, said the reform measures "will inspire more confidence in our political institutions and our system of government."

But Conservative Leader Ernie Eves dismissed the reforms as "a lot of talk" from a government with a massive majority of 72 seats to the Tories' 24 and the NDP's seven.

"We saw a bit of arrogance in there today on the part of the government," said Eves, pointing to the Liberals' denial of official party status to the NDP and a seating plan that placed a rump of 16 Liberal MPPs between the Tories and New Democrats.

"You can afford to be charitable when you have an overwhelming majority. Perhaps a few of them would do well to look up the word `humility' in the dictionary," the former premier said.

In an ironic twist, NDP Leader Howard Hampton was thwarted yesterday in his attempt to ask a second question of the government during the afternoon question period.

"You've got a very large Liberal majority that wants to put out some superficial fluff about democratic renewal when in fact they are behaving more like dictators in terms of question period," he said.

"George Orwell would have been embarrassed by the Liberal doublespeak."

The move to disclose hydro executive salaries comes on the heels of last week's ouster of three high-priced executives from Ontario Power Generation (OPG).

The executives, who last year made a total of more than $2.5 million, were axed after it was revealed the cost of refitting the Pickering A nuclear plant had jumped to $4 billion.

Energy Minister Dwight Duncan told the Legislature that under his proposed changes, OPG and Hydro One will have to comply with the Public Sector Salary Disclosure Act, under which the salaries of public servants who earn more than $100,000 are published annually. As well, the utilities will have to comply with the Freedom of Information Act.

"We're cleaning up the mess left by the former government and working hard to fix what's broken. We believe that improved transparency and accountability at OPG and Hydro One will lead to better use of public funds," Duncan said.

With Files From Richard Brennan.


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