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Harinder Takhar, candidate for the leadership of the Ontario Liberal Party takes part in a debate at a Canadian Club luncheon moderated by Steve Paikin on Dec 6 2012. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Harinder Takhar, candidate for the leadership of the Ontario Liberal Party takes part in a debate at a Canadian Club luncheon moderated by Steve Paikin on Dec 6 2012. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Rural-urban divide makes waves in Ontario race Add to ...

One of the candidates for the Ontario Liberal leadership is proposing a new system for setting provincial electoral boundaries that would give much more power to the Greater Toronto Area, at the expense of under-populated rural ridings.

According to his campaign officials, former government services minister Harinder Takhar is calling for the province to stop mirroring federal districts, as it has since the 1990s. He would give an independent “Ontario boundary commission” the task of drawing a new map that would provide something closer to “true representation by population.”

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If it were to gain steam, the proposal could play to both the Liberals’ strengths and weaknesses. It would increase the number of seats in the fast-growing “905 belt,” which the governing party nearly swept last election. But it would also further alienate rural and small-town regions, making it harder for them to rebuild in areas where they were virtually wiped out.

Although Mr. Takhar is seen to have little chance of winning Premier Dalton McGuinty’s job at the Liberals’ convention later this month, his policy proposals are drawing attention from other candidates who will be looking for second-choice support from his delegates. And reactions from the two perceived leadership front-runners were indicative of significantly different perspectives on the urban-rural balance.

Sandra Pupatello, a former Windsor MPP who has made much of being the only candidate from outside the GTA, was lukewarm at best. “It is essential that we acknowledge the growth of our population in urban and suburban areas, but not at the expense of the democratic rights of our rural and northern regions,” she said through a spokesperson.

In an interview, Kathleen Wynne – who appears to have considerable provincewide support, but is strongest in her hometown of Toronto – was more open to what she called “an interesting idea.” While acknowledging that both rural sensitivities and the cost of adding new constituencies would have to be taken into account, Ms. Wynne said it “makes a lot of sense” to strive for more equal representation.

Even if it continues to take its lead from Ottawa, the province will likely come closer to that equality in the years ahead. The federal map is in the midst of being redrawn, with Ontario standing to gain 15 new ridings to reflect population movement. A vote could be held in the legislature to adopt the same boundaries, while preserving the one notable difference on Ontario’s map – an extra riding in the province’s sparsely populated but geographically enormous north.

That in itself might be controversial, given the optics of adding more politicians as the government otherwise tightens its belt. But Mr. Takhar contends that it wouldn’t be adequate, because it would allow for up to 25-per-cent population variation between urban and rural ridings – still leaving individuals in places such as Mississauga, which he represents, with less voice than those elsewhere.

His proposal would itself add no more than 15 new seats, and would preserve the existing northern boundaries. So it would likely require the new commission to actively shrink the number of seats in eastern and Southwestern Ontario, to help bring their numbers in line with the GTA.

Mr. Takhar has put forward enough other policy proposals – including faster elimination of the provincial deficit, using savings bonds to fund new infrastructure, and increasing protections for temporary workers – that redistribution may not be pivotal to winning his support on the convention floor.

But improbable though it may be, there are some Liberals with a faint hope of adopting new boundaries before Ontario next goes to the polls. They will no doubt appreciate Mr. Takhar at least getting the discussion going, even as Liberals hoping to rebuild rural support will hope it quickly dies down again.

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