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Liberal leadership candidates take to the stage at The Old Mill Inn and Spa in Toronto for the final debate of the Ontario Liberal leadership race. (Tim Fraser For The Globe and Mail)
Liberal leadership candidates take to the stage at The Old Mill Inn and Spa in Toronto for the final debate of the Ontario Liberal leadership race. (Tim Fraser For The Globe and Mail)

ADAM RADWANSKI

Cashed-up Ontario Liberal candidates play with fire Add to ...

Contributions of $25,000 from the Insurance Bureau of Canada to each of the front-runners to become the next premier at a time when auto insurance rates are a subject of debate. A whopping $50,000 from a single firm to a suburban candidate whose campaign is largely being funded by the construction industry. A $20,000 donation from a numbered company belonging to a businessman with ties to the gaming industry to an MPP who has since abandoned his candidacy but could have a say over casino plans in his downtown Toronto riding.

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Welcome to what operatives in Ontario Liberal leadership camps call “the Wild West” – a contest in which the fundraising rules, or lack thereof, have allowed money to flow in a way that seems a throwback to a bygone era.

Whereas federal election laws cap donations in the concurrent Liberal Party of Canada race at $1,100, there is no similar limit on how much any individual, business or union can contribute to a leadership candidate in Ontario, nor have the Liberals taken it upon themselves to impose one. In theory, a candidate could be funded entirely by one backer. And while nothing quite that drastic has happened, the money being thrown around is enough to underscore the need for provincial campaign-finance law to enter the 21st century.

Many of the eyebrow-raising donations may have perfectly innocuous explanations. (Explore these donations in our interactive breakdown.) Construction money being given to Mississauga MPP Charles Sousa, including the $50,000 from the Limen Group, might be chalked up to his enormous popularity in the Portuguese-Canadian community. Andrzej Kepinski has a history of making large donations to Toronto Centre Liberals, so interest in a downtown casino (of the sort he helped bring to Niagara Falls) may have nothing to do with that $20,000 he gave Glen Murray. Windsor’s billionaire Zekelman brothers probably gave Sandra Pupatello a combined $50,000 just because she’s one of their city’s favourite daughters.

Others can’t be as easily chalked up to mere goodwill. The Insurance Bureau presumably did not give $25,000 to Ms. Pupatello and Kathleen Wynne, and $10,000 to Eric Hoskins, just because it thinks they’re all swell candidates. The same goes for the donations of $20,000 each from the Federation of Rental-Housing Providers of Ontario to Ms. Pupatello, Ms. Wynne and Mr. Sousa.

For most candidates, these big donations pay the bills, with only Ms. Wynne appearing to have put together a broad fundraising network. As of the most recent disclosures – through a “real-time” system on the Elections Ontario website that, as of Tuesday, had not been updated in more than a week – her 250 contributors of between $100 and $500 were three times more than anyone else had. (Donations under $100 are not publicly reported.)

There is no reason to believe any of the candidates have accepted even the biggest cheques with strings attached. But the fact is, their province and their party are playing with fire.

Particularly when it is the leadership of a governing party being contested, even no-hope candidates might soon wield influence at the cabinet table. The lack of a donation limit allows contributors to do an end-run around campaign-finance laws that otherwise prevent them from giving more than $1,240 to an individual MPP’s riding association, and an additional $1,240 to that MPP’s re-election campaign, in any given year.

It also appears donors can indirectly provide more money to the Ontario Liberal Party itself than the $9,300 that would otherwise be permitted annually. With leadership candidates having been asked to give 25 per cent of all money they raise back to the party, the Limen Group has effectively (if probably unknowingly) directed $12,500 to party coffers.

Ontario can hardly be called unique among provinces in maintaining such gaping holes in its campaign-finance framework. British Columbia, similarly, has no limit on leadership- campaign donations; Alberta has a $30,000 cap, which isn’t much better. But Quebec recently imposed a somewhat extreme $500 cap, and Manitoba has a more moderate $3,000 one.

In lieu of legal restraints, it’s simply not realistic to expect candidates competing against one another during hurried campaigns to police themselves – something laid plain during Ontario’s contest.

The only one of the candidates to have publicly expressed reservations about the lax rules, Gerard Kennedy, has publicly set a self-imposed $10,000 donation limit. But a look at his filings shows three donations of $5,000 each from Alpha Laboratories, Alpha HTN and Alpha Global iT – all of which appear to be related, though his campaign insists one of them is a separate company.

It’s hard to blame the candidates themselves; such is the nature of playing in the Wild West. But before the next party leadership race in Ontario, the province should bring some law to it.

Explore more than $1.2-million in donations to the Ontario Liberal party candidates in our interactive breakdown.

Follow on Twitter: @aradwanski

 

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