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Patrick Brown, leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, is photographed during a scrum at the Ontario legislature on April 5, 2016.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Ontario's Progressive Conservatives raised more than $16.1-million through political donations in 2016, a record haul that far outstripped the governing Liberals as the parties prepare for next year's election.

Kathleen Wynne and the long-governing Liberal Party's once-powerful fundraising machine raised $6.5-million last year, the second-lowest since Ms. Wynne became Premier in 2013. The total included proceeds of $1,000-a-plate fundraisers, which have now been outlawed.

In contrast, Patrick Brown spent his first full year as leader attending hundreds of events both big and small to eliminate the Official Opposition's $6.1-million debt and exceed the PCs' overall $11-million fundraising goal, according to discussions with party officials and financial documents provided to The Globe and Mail. The war chest will be needed to finance everything from expensive television advertising to pins with Mr. Brown's name on them as he takes to the road in the summer 2018 in a campaign to unseat Ms. Wynne's government. However, the money they now have in the bank also allows the Tories to reach voters before they must comply with Ontario's campaign spending limits, which restrict parties to $1-million in advertising during the six months before an election.

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The money will allow the party to mount "a proper campaign," according to Walied Soliman, a member of Mr. Brown's inner circle.

Robert MacDermid, a political science professor at York University who looks closely at party fundraising, said the gap between the parties' totals is "unusually large." It is the first time the Opposition has raised more than the Liberals since 2011, according to data from Elections Ontario.

"Typically, the governing party out-fundraises the opposition in any given year, even when they are unpopular," Prof. MacDermid said.

Part of the haul could be attributed to the fact that campaign finance reforms were coming that would clamp down on cash-for-access fundraising, end corporate and union donations and impose tighter caps on contributions. The new rules took effect on Jan. 1, 2017.

In the year before a change of campaign-finance legislation at the federal level in the mid-2000s, some of the major parties doubled their fundraising in an effort to get money from corporate and union donors under the old rules, Prof. MacDermid noted.

"It's not unusual to have an orgy of money come in before new rules, but this is unusually high," he said.

The Liberals also cited the coming new rules as an explanation for the party's drop in fundraising last year. While the Liberals raised about $10.8-million in 2015, according to data from Elections Ontario, that fell to almost $6.5-million last year, the party told The Globe.

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"Premier Kathleen Wynne and our party believed the way politics were done in Ontario needed to change," party spokeswoman Patricia Favre said, noting that is why Ms. Wynne told Liberal MPPs to stop holding small-scale, private fundraisers, and to post all events online. "Now with the new fundraising rules in place, we look forward to continuing to engage with Ontarians and party members interested in playing a role in Ontario's democratic process."

With an end to cash-for-access fundraisers, politicians have to work harder to raise money, attending more events where they pass the hat among supporters. A donor who could give nearly $30,000 to parties, candidates and constituencies before 2017 is now limited to $1,200 to a political party, $1,200 to constituencies and $1,200 to candidates – an effective limit of $3,600 per year.

The Ontario NDP raised just over $4.1-million, according to Karla Webber-Gallagher, the party's provincial secretary. "We feel really good about it. We definitely exceeded the target we set for ourselves," she said.

While polls continue to show that Ontarians are unfamiliar with Mr. Brown, who is from Barrie, as both a leader and politician, party officials say he was almost solely responsible for the fundraising total. Mr. Soliman, a prominent Bay Street lawyer and Mr. Brown's campaign chair for 2018, said the leader made the plan, which set a gruelling fundraising schedule for himself.

"I wish I could tell you that there was this incredible team of people lead by some incredible individual," Mr. Soliman said. "The truth is that it was Patrick Brown sitting down and saying, 'Where can I raise the funds necessary to ensure that our message is delivered to the people of Ontario.' He did that. He literally worked morning, afternoon and night, meeting people and making sure that they understood his message."

The PCs surpassed the revenue target because of grassroots fundraisers and corporate donors, said Tony Miele, chairman of the PC Ontario Fund, which manages the party's money.

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"It's our party's best year ever," he said."... In my entire career, I've never seen anything like this."

The Tories say the money they raised in 2016 was not just from big corporate cheques and the Bay Street crowd, but came from 18,022 contributors. Along with small online donations, Mr. Brown attended hundreds of fundraising events, from small-town barbeques to meetings with supporters in a hall.

The party has more than 100,000 members, Mr. Soliman said. While the party has taken a strong line against Ms. Wynne, leaders say that the message to donors is about Mr. Brown's preparedness for the premier's office as much as it is about Liberal failings.

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