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Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne talks to media at her first press conference after the announcement of a cabinet shuffle at Queen's Park in Toronto, on Monday, June 13 , 2016. (Eduardo Lima/The Canadian Press)
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne talks to media at her first press conference after the announcement of a cabinet shuffle at Queen's Park in Toronto, on Monday, June 13 , 2016. (Eduardo Lima/The Canadian Press)

Globe editorial

On cash-for-access, have Ontario’s Liberals lost the plot? Add to ...

It will probably take a crew of 10 people working for a solid week to remove the skid marks at Queen’s Park caused by the Wynne government’s sudden U-turn on the issue of cash-for-access political fundraisers.

On Monday, out of nowhere, Government House Leader Yasir Naqvi announced that he plans to introduce amendments to Bill 201, the province’s proposed political finance reform legislation. He wants to ban MPPs from attending any and all party fundraisers.

This surprise move comes after the Ontario Liberal Party spent years trading access to cabinet and to Premier Kathleen Wynne in exchange for large donations. Corporate executives and entrepreneurs who did business with the province would pony up as much as $10,000 for the chance to bend a minister’s ear over a glass of wine at an exclusive fundraiser. The party even set quotas for how much money cabinet ministers were to raise from stakeholders in the departments they oversaw.

The cash-for-access scheme was a clear conflict of interest, to the point that at least one former Liberal cabinet minister said he left politics because of it. But the Wynne government refused to acknowledge the obvious – until, that is, cash-for-access became a full-blown scandal, thanks to reporting by the Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail.

And even then, as a government backed into a corner finally vowed to reform Ontario’s political finance laws, it refused to directly address cash-for-access fundraising. Just last week, Premier Wynne said she saw no need to explicitly ban the practice, in spite of pressure to do so from opposition MPPs during heated committee hearings on Bill 201.

Something must have happened over the weekend, because now Mr. Naqvi plans to ban MPPs – whether in government or opposition – from attending any fundraising events.

Seriously? It’s a move that looks less like the zeal of a convert, and more like a petulant act of spite.

Unless the Liberals plan to outlaw political donations entirely (they don’t), the step makes no sense. The scandal that forced the Liberals to introduce Bill 201 was not about a local MPP attending a potluck dinner in their riding, where tickets cost $50. The scandal was the Liberals using their advantage as the governing party to collect large cheques from people seeking favour with cabinet members. It was cabinet members trading access for cash, or giving the appearance of doing so.

Do the Liberals now expect anyone to believe that, just because a cabinet minister can’t attend a fundraiser, he or she won’t be beholden to major donors? If donations are being actively traded for favours, what possible difference can it make whether or not a cabinet minister is present when a cheque is written?

But even beyond that gap in logic, it is absurd to claim that a candidate for election or re-election who is raising small amounts of money from individual donors – a practice common across Canada – is the same as a cabinet minister selling high-priced private access to persons with whom his or her department does business, or has regulatory powers over.

The opposition are right to demand that Bill 201 address the issues at the heart of the cash-for-access scandal. The bill is a good start – it just needs to go further.

It bans donations from corporations and unions and sets vastly reduced limits on the amounts individuals can give. If adopted, the annual individual donation limit will be $2,400 to one party in a regular year, and $3,600 when there’s an election or by-election. The current maximum, which led to the abuses of the cash-for-access scheme, is $33,250.

The lower limits and the ban on corporate and union donations will go a long way by themselves toward eliminating cash-for-access fundraising. But $3,600 is still a lot of money from one person. The Liberals should lower the limits even more, something quite doable since Bill 201 includes a generous, new per-vote subsidy for all parties; the Liberals alone will get more than $5-million per year. If the parties are now eligible for a government handout, why not significantly reduce the individual donation limit, by copying Quebec’s annual ceiling of just $100 per person? That would eliminate the possibility of conflict of interest, or its appearance.

But instead of seeking to focus attention on a demonstrably real problem, Mr. Naqvi is suggesting a blanket ban on MPPs being physically present at fundraising events. At the same time, however, he’s leaving the donation limits high enough to provoke a sense of unease, while also allowing the parties to cash in with a lucrative handout from the taxpayer in the form of the proposed per-vote subsidy. For a moment last week, it looked like the Wynne government’s reforms, which were heading in the right direction, might actually reach a destination worth celebrating. Not anymore.

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