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Ontario Liberals tighten donation caps, but won’t ban cash-for-access events

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is pictured at Queen’s Park in Toronto on June 9, 2016.

Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Ontario's Liberal government has bowed to public and opposition pressure to tighten caps further on political donations, but is still not banning cash-for-access fundraising.

Government House Leader Yasir Naqvi on Monday released proposed amendments to Bill 201, the Liberals' campaign-finance reform legislation. The bill is under review by a legislative committee, which has been holding public hearings for the past two months.

Read more: An inside look at cash-for-access Ontario Liberal fundraisers

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The changes include a $3,600 limit per donor – divided among the central party office, riding associations and individual candidates – in a year with an election or by-election, or $2,400 in a year without either. Currently, donors can contribute up to $33,250 annually; the original text of the bill would have brought that down to $7,750 in a year with an election or by-election.

But the Liberals opted not to make cash-for-access illegal, allowing the controversial fundraising practice that started the furor over campaign finance to continue. Instead of a legislated ban, Mr. Naqvi's office said he will consult the opposition parties on a code of conduct for MPPs that would offer guidelines for raising money from stakeholders.

The government turned down an interview request for Mr. Naqvi. His spokesman, Kyle Richardson, refused to answer questions directly on why the Liberals are not prohibiting cash-for-access.

"Government amendments are based on the feedback heard at public hearings held across Ontario. We are committed to working with the opposition," Mr. Richardson wrote in an e-mail.

Under the cash-for-access system, revealed by The Globe and Mail this spring, corporations, unions and wealthy individuals paid up to $10,000 for access to Premier Kathleen Wynne and members of her cabinet, typically over cocktails and dinner. At most events, corporate and union leaders in a given sector – including construction, finance, insurance and pharmaceuticals – gave money to spend time with the cabinet minister responsible for making policy decisions and handing out contracts in the donors' industry.

Read more: Ontario ministerial aides tapped to sell tickets to fundraisers

The revelations prompted Ms. Wynne to craft Bill 201, which will ban corporate and union donations, and reduce contribution limits.

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But several campaign-finance experts who testified at the committee argued the bill contained loopholes, and would still give wealthy donors disproportionate influence.

And the opposition on Monday ratcheted up the pressure on the Liberals by moving several amendments of their own that would make it illegal for provincial politicians to trade access for donations from people seeking business with the government.

A Progressive Conservative proposal would prohibit MPPs from asking stakeholders for contributions, and bar cabinet ministers from soliciting money from any officer, director, employee or lobbyist of a company that had received a government contract in the previous five years.

The NDP proposed banning political candidates from asking for donations that would put them in a real or perceived conflict-of-interest.

The opposition amendments throw down the gauntlet in front of the Liberals. Ms. Wynne's party holds a majority of seats on the committee, meaning such proposals will become law only if the Liberals agree. The committee will debate the amendments next week.

PC MPP Randy Hillier said the Liberal proposal to punt the cash-for-access issue to a code of conduct outside the law is a stalling tactic.

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"I see this as, 'delay, delay and maybe it will go away,'" he said in an interview. "Cash-for-access is at the crux and was the trigger for Bill 201 and campaign-financing reform."

Catherine Fife, the New Democrat MPP on the committee, said the current legislation would leave open the door for donors to influence politicians.

"People can still get into that door if they have enough money, and they can still influence legislation and policy. Our amendment looks to close that door," she told The Globe. "We can do this now. We don't need to punt it away. We don't need to delay it any further. Let's get it done."

Liberal amendments would beef up several other parts of Bill 201, including banning corporations and unions from paying employees to work on political campaigns, requiring that fundraisers be publicly disclosed in advance and prohibiting taxpayer-funded government advertising for 60 days before an election campaign. The Liberals also plan to increase annual taxpayer subsidies to political parties to $2.71 per vote in the previous election from $2.26 in the current version of the bill. This would translate into a little over $5-million for the Liberals, $4.1-million for the PCs and $3.1-million for the NDP.

The PCs' proposals also include requiring that donors' employers and postal codes be published to discourage people from getting around fundraising caps by funnelling money to political parties through their employees and family members; giving the integrity commissioner more power to investigate possible conflicts-of-interest by politicians and political staffers; and making it harder for people with ties to political parties to work on third-party advertising campaigns.

Other NDP proposed amendments include strengthening restrictions on government advertising to ensure it is non-partisan, requiring lobbyists to disclose every time they lobby a government official, and capping donations at $3,100.

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About the Author
Washington correspondent

Adrian Morrow covers U.S. politics from Washington, D.C. Previously he was The Globe's Ontario politics reporter. He's covered news, crime and sports for The Globe since 2010. He won the National Newspaper Award for politics reporting in 2016. More

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