Ontario's Liberal government is promising to ban provincial politicians from attending fundraising events – a dramatic policy U-turn designed to contain a cash-for-access scandal roiling Queen's Park.
In a surprise statement on Monday afternoon, Government House Leader Yasir Naqvi pledged to amend Bill 201, a package of campaign-finance reforms making its way through the legislature, to bar MPPs from going to fundraisers.
Under the cash-for-access system – first reported by The Globe and Mail in February, 2013, two weeks after Kathleen Wynne was sworn in as Premier – corporate executives, union leaders and lobbyists paid up to $10,000 apiece for private time with Ms. Wynne and members of her cabinet, typically over cocktails and dinner. Attendees included companies that are affected by government policy and contracting decisions.
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"When the House resumes in September, we will be introducing an amendment to ban fundraising events for all MPPs," Mr. Naqvi said in the statement, which another Liberal MPP read out in the middle of a fractious meeting of the legislative committee reviewing Bill 201. "Banning fundraising events is a significant change that will affect both parties and riding associations."
While political parties would still be allowed to seek contributions under the new rules, the statement said, politicians would be prohibited from attending events to raise money – effectively barring them from offering one-on-one time to people who want to influence government policy in exchange for campaign donations.
The Liberals had long refused to ban cash-for-access amid mounting pressure from the opposition and campaign-finance experts. While Ms. Wynne has been the main voice and primary decision-maker on the issue, Mr. Naqvi is the minister steering the bill.
For more than three years after taking power, Ms. Wynne kept the system going and made no attempt to bar the practice. The Liberals included no provisions to stop cash-for-access when they introduced Bill 201 this spring. They also did not include a ban in their first-reading amendments to the bill, tabled last week. As recently as last Wednesday, Mr. Naqvi insisted a legislated ban on such fundraising would be impractical.
Only after the Progressive Conservatives and NDP introduced amendments of their own to ban the practice did the Liberals have a change of heart.
Mr. Naqvi vowed in the statement that his rules will be tougher than those proposed by the opposition parties, which would prevent MPPs from soliciting donations from people who do business with the government. Mr. Naqvi said the Liberals will bar the opposition amendments.
"There are currently no amendments before the committee that go as far as we need to go on this issue," he said in the statement. "As a result, we will [be] voting down [the opposition's] weaker amendments on the issue and bring forward a stronger amendment at second reading."
Mr. Naqvi said the Liberals would also bring in a per-vote subsidy to riding associations to make up for an expected decline in donations under the ban. The Liberals had previously proposed such a subsidy only for central party coffers.
In a subsequent conference call with reporters, Mr. Naqvi said many details of the promised ban, such as how it would be enforced, are still being worked out. "I just ask you for some patience as we determine all those policy options," he said.
Nevertheless, he denied that the Liberals are scrambling to defuse the issue after the legislative committee ratcheted up the pressure on them. "This is not by any means a last-minute, hasty decision," he insisted.
NDP MPP Catherine Fife said she would wait until the Liberals table the full text of their amendment before celebrating.
"It's a last-ditch, desperate effort to look like they had any intention of doing the right thing," she said. "If we are successful in truly making election financing transparent and accountable in this province, then we will have won by holding them to account. But the devil is always in the details with this government."
Earlier in the day, the Liberals used their majority on the committee to vote down every opposition attempt to strengthen Bill 201, including a provision that would have limited spending by political parties on polling and travel at election time.
The debate grew so heated that PC MPP Randy Hillier referred to Liberals on the committee as "parrots" repeating scripted talking points from the Premier's office. When Liberal MPP Daiene Vernile complained that the ornithological comparison was "degrading and inappropriate," Mr. Hillier taunted her by clucking like a chicken.
PC deputy leader Steve Clark said the Liberal practice of blocking all opposition amendments to Bill 201 – combined with Mr. Naqvi's decision to drop his announcement in the middle of the debate – show the government is determined to run the process by diktat.
"You people are a real piece of work," he admonished the Liberals at committee after Mr. Naqvi's statement was read out. "Not only did you continue to do cash-for-access even after you were caught … this whole process, it's just been a sham. You're going to do whatever you want to do."