Even as Ontario's ruling Liberals promised to end cash-for-access fundraising this week, the party used its majority on a legislative committee to block a slew of proposals from the Progressive Conservatives and the NDP aimed at toughening up new campaign finance laws.
Among other proposed measures, the Liberals voted down a prohibition on cabinet ministers seeking donations from employees of companies with government contracts, tighter restrictions on taxpayer-funded government advertising and requirements for more transparency from lobbyists.
The committee reviewing Premier Kathleen Wynne's campaign finance law, Bill 201 – introduced in the spring after a Globe and Mail investigation into cash-for-access fundraising – voted on Monday and Tuesday on amendments before sending the bill back to the legislature for second reading.
Of more than 70 amendments opposition parties proposed, the Liberals allowed only six to pass. Among the measures they voted down were:
- A PC amendment to ban cabinet ministers from asking for donations from the employees and lobbyists of any company that bid on or received a government contract worth more than $1,000 in the previous five years;
- Amendments from both parties that would have given the auditor-general more power to stop government advertisements he or she deemed to be partisan;
- An NDP amendment to require lobbyists to disclose which politicians or officials they have lobbied and what they talked to them about, as well as to have their political donations published in the lobbyist registry. The current rules oblige lobbyists to disclose only which government offices they intend to lobby;
- A PC amendment to require that donors to political parties disclose the name of their employer. The measure was meant to make it easier to enforce laws intended to stop corporations from making donations through their employees;
- NDP amendments to toughen conflict-of-interest restrictions on MPPs and political candidates, and give the integrity commissioner more power to investigate them;
- An NDP amendment to subject political parties’ polling, research and travel costs at election time to the same spending restrictions as other campaign expenses.
The five Liberal members of the committee, often reading from prepared statements, offered various reasons for rejecting the amendments, including that they are not necessary or would be too difficult to enforce.
The Liberals passed just a handful of opposition amendments, including proposals to ban group donations through unions and oblige Elections Ontario to publish donations online within two days instead of 10.
The Liberals also passed more than 30 of their own amendments, with measures to reduce donation caps further, prohibit government advertising for 60 days before an election campaign, and increase a proposed per-vote subsidy to political parties.
Partway through the committee meeting on Monday, a Liberal MPP read a statement from Government House Leader Yasir Naqvi promising to add a ban on cash-for-access at second reading of the bill – something the Liberals had refused to do in the original bill or in their amendments at committee.
Catherine Fife, the New Democrat on the committee, said the Liberals talk a good game on campaign finance, but their rejection of most of the opposition amendments shows they are insincere.
"The entire process was disingenuous. They had no real intention of making substantive changes to the way election financing operates in the province of Ontario," she said in an interview. "They started this process with all the right language, and then we had this display of stonewalling."
The Liberals took the unusual step of referring the legislation to committee after first reading, and the committee spent the summer meeting with experts and interested Ontarians at hearings across the province. At the time, the Liberals said this would allow more tri-partisan collaboration on the bill.
PC MPPs Randy Hillier and Steve Clark stormed out of the committee on Monday after the Liberals voted down a string of Tory amendments and Mr. Naqvi's statement was read. They accused the government of controlling campaign finance reform from the Premier's office, with the committee a charade to give the appearance of democracy.
"What we've seen here today is a total mockery," Mr. Hillier admonished the Liberal MPPs. "I'm not going to waste my time any further with this committee. It is of no benefit. It is of no value. It has been preordained what you're going to do, and it's a bunch of BS."
Bill 201 returns to the legislature for second reading, then goes back to committee for further review. Ms. Wynne has promised a final vote before the end of the year so the new campaign finance rules can take effect at the start of 2017.