The Ontario Liberals have introduced campaign finance legislation aimed at curbing the influence of big money on politics, but have decided not to put any restrictions on the private cash-for-access fundraisers that started the uproar over political donations in the first place.
The new law will also allow donors to give more than $10,000 in some years and make it hard to track whether corporations are illegally paying employees to donate on their bosses' behalf.
Government House Leader Yasir Naqvi tabled the Election Finances Statute Law Amendment Act in the legislature on Tuesday. The legislation would ban corporate and union donations, cut the limit a person is allowed to donate to a political party from $9,975 to $1,550, and cap third-party advertising.
It would make up for some of the decrease in donations with an annual taxpayer-funded subsidy to parties of $2.26 for each vote received in the previous election annually.
Premier Kathleen Wynne promised the clampdown after a series of Globe and Mail reports on the Liberals' small-scale, private fundraisers. At these events, people with a financial stake in government decisions paid thousands of dollars to have dinner and cocktails with Ms. Wynne and members of her cabinet, a practice that could constitute unregistered lobbying.
But the Liberals did not include any provisions in the new act to discourage such activity. At a news conference, Mr. Naqvi refused to answer directly when asked why the government chose not to take action on this front.
"I think one has to be mindful of the fact that this is a very big step we're taking in terms of reforming how election financing is happening," he said, before repeating other provisions of the bill at length.
One simple way to limit cash-for-access would be to oblige politicians to disclose publicly every time they are lobbied, including at such events, a rule Ontario does not have, campaign-finance expert Robert MacDermid said. Such a rule would mean these fundraisers would all be made public.
Mr. MacDermid contends the province should also require more disclosure from donors, such as the name of their employer. Publishing this information would make it harder for corporations to circumvent campaign-finance restrictions by encouraging their employees to donate and reimbursing them.
"I'm always suspicious of parties making up their own rules," Dr. MacDermid, an associate professor of political science at Toronto's York University, said in an interview. "There's an issue of better disclosure."
The new rules also contain provisions for donors to give more than the nominal maximum. Contributors will be allowed to give $1,550 to the central parties, but can also donate up to $3,100 annually to individual riding associations and up to $3,100 to individual candidates in any election or by-election campaign. This means that, in a year with a by-election, a donor could give $7,750 in total. In years with two by-elections and a general election, a donor could give $10,850.
The legislation would also cap spending on third-party campaigns at $100,000 during a campaign and $600,000 in the six months before. Third parties will also be prohibited from co-ordinating their advertising campaigns. The penalty for breaking this rule, however, would be only $5,000.
In the past four election campaigns, dozens of unions have collectively spent millions of dollars running ads attacking the Progressive Conservatives. One union umbrella group, Working Families, spent $2.5-million in 2014.
Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown called on the Liberals to tighten the rules to put an end to cash-for-access, which he described as a "pay for policy approach" to fundraising. He said the legislation should contain conflict-of-interest rules that explicitly ban politicians from taking donations from stakeholders.
"I challenge the Premier to do the right thing. There is still time to clean up the loopholes, add conflict-of-interest regulations to this bill, add lobbying regulations," he said. "The fact that they think it's still appropriate to fund-raise off those who do business with the government shows they haven't learned their lesson."
The bill will be referred to a legislative committee, which will hold hearings over the summer and could make changes before referring it back to the legislature in the fall. The Liberals will hold a majority on the committee, meaning nothing will change in the bill unless Ms. Wynne agrees.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath on Tuesday called for Ms. Wynne to give the other parties equal representation on the committee and put the province's independent chief electoral officer in charge of the deliberations.
"We have one political party that's kind of railroading everybody else in terms of a process for reform of finances of political parties and elections," she said. "This should be in the public realm. This should not be controlled by one political party."