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Canada Ontario campaign finance reforms don’t go far enough, critics say

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne brought in the legislation after The Globe and Mail exposed a system of fundraisers in which business and union leaders paid thousands of dollars for exclusive access to the Liberal government.

Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Ontario Liberals' proposed campaign finance reforms leave significant loopholes that would allow controversial cash-for-access fundraisers to continue, provide wealthy donors the opportunity to give over $7,000 in most years, and let corporations and unions pay employees to work on political campaigns.

Now, a growing chorus of voices says the province must toughen up the law to get big money out of politics.

Premier Kathleen Wynne brought in the legislation after The Globe and Mail earlier this year exposed a system of secret, small-scale fundraisers in which business and union leaders paid thousands of dollars for exclusive access to the Premier and members of her cabinet.

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A further Globe investigation, published this week, outlined the consequences of such a system: Nearly all the guests at Liberal fundraisers represented companies that do business with government or depend on provincial policy decisions for their livelihoods. These included construction companies with government infrastructure contracts, developers, pharmaceutical firms, the insurance industry and electricity companies.

Bill 201, the Election Finances Statute Law Amendment Act, would ban corporate and union donations, lower the cap on individual contributions and put restrictions on election advertising by special interest groups.

But a legislative committee holding hearings on the bill has heard from experts and politicians across the political spectrum who say the legislation must go a lot further.

Guy Giorno, a former chief of staff to former prime minister Stephen Harper and Ontario ex-premier Mike Harris, urged the province to adopt federal rules that prohibit cabinet ministers from fundraising off stakeholders or trading access to themselves for donations. Those rules, written by Mr. Giorno for Mr. Harper's cabinet, were retained by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau when he took office last year.

"The intersection between lobbying and political fundraising is one of the biggest challenges of modern accountability and ethics," Mr. Giorno, who now works as a lawyer advising companies on how to comply with lobbying and conflict-of-interest rules, said in an interview. "Lobbying is a democratic right and giving money to politicians is a democratic right, but the two together are unethical and should be unlawful."

In a presentation to the committee, Mr. Giorno also pointed to jurisdictions in the United States that take it a step further with anti-"pay-to-play" laws, banning companies that do business with government from donating to politicians. Virginia, for instance, brought in rules this year to prohibit companies that receive public grants and loans from making contributions.

"The concept of pay-to-play, people making contributions to get things, be they lobbyists or others, is not at all addressed by Bill 201," Mr. Giorno told the committee.

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He also urged the committee to change the rules allowing corporations and unions to pay employees to work on political campaigns. Not only is this currently legal in Ontario, it is not disclosed or counted as a campaign contribution.

Alex Cullen, a former Ottawa city councillor and MPP, argued that leaving this practice unregulated would allow a back-door means for corporations and unions to continue contributing to politicians after they are banned from making donations.

"That is a financial contribution that should be forbidden," he told the committee. "Whether you write a cheque to my campaign for that day's work or you provide me with a person who is going to run around and do that – put up signs, deliver brochures, work on the phones; whatever it is – it comes to the same thing."

Others, meanwhile, say the donation caps in the proposed law are still too high, giving wealthy Ontarians the opportunity to unduly influence politicians.

Currently, donors can give $9,975 annually to a central political party, plus $6,650 to the party's constituency associations and $9,975 extra for an election or by-election campaign period. Bill 201 proposes lowering the annual donation to the central party to $1,550, plus $3,100 to riding associations and $3,100 to individual candidates in an election or by-election. This means that in most years that include an election or by-election a donor could give $7,750.

Campaign finance expert Robert MacDermid urged the committee to set a hard annual cap of $1,550 per donor to all parties and constituency associations, regardless of whether there is an election or by-election. He pointed out that the average annual donation is under $500, meaning a privileged few would still wield disproportionate influence if allowed to give $7,750 most years.

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"While the bill does significantly reduce contribution limits in several ways, the limits are still far higher than the actual average contribution amounts," Dr. MacDermid, an associate professor of political science at York University, wrote in a submission to the committee. "The contribution limits are still complicated and could be simplified with one global limit in any year, regardless of an election."

Ontario Chief Electoral Officer Greg Essensa told the committee to tighten up third-party advertising restrictions. Current provisions to stop third parties – such as corporations and unions – from co-ordinating their ads with political parties are not strong enough, he said.

"The public can plainly see that candidates and organizations that claim to be non-partisan are able to actively co-ordinate their advertising," he told the committee. "This sort of co-ordination is especially troubling when an organization relies on former political staff or partisan strategists to shape a third-party's advertising. The public sees this as an apparent conflict of interest, and I do, too."

Union umbrella group Working Families, which has run ads attacking the Progressive Conservatives in the past four elections, for instance, has used advertising agencies run by former Liberal staffers.

The Liberals have insisted they never gave contracts or made policy decisions as a result of campaign donations. Publicly, companies and lobbyists who have attended fundraisers said they only did it to participate in the democratic process and to meet politicians to learn more about government policy.

Finance Minister Charles Sousa echoed this refrain Friday.

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"None of this has any direct influence over the decisions we make around policy," he told reporters at Queen's Park. "But we recognize that changes should be made, and that's what we're doing. I welcome your input and that of the public."

Mr. Sousa's fundraising, meanwhile, has continued apace. On Wednesday evening, he attended a dinner at Grano, a midtown Toronto Italian restaurant. Mr. Sousa said he was keynote speaker at the "small gathering," but would not say whether any of the attendees represented banks, insurance companies or other finance industry stakeholders whose businesses are affected by his decisions.

"There were a number of people there that have an interest in our budget, the plan I put forward, the initiatives that we put in place. … We're impacting businesses a lot in a big way and all of them would like to ensure that the results are positive," Mr. Sousa said. "So in some respects, you can say that everyone's a stakeholder to the Ministry of Finance."

The Ontario Liberal Party refused to release a list of people who bought tickets to the event.

Both the PCs and the NDP vowed Friday to push for the legislation to be toughened up to ban cash for access. But with the Liberals holding a majority of seats on the committee, the bill can only be changed if Ms. Wynne agrees.

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