Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is promising legislation this spring to outlaw corporate and union political donations as she scrambles to contain a furor over her party's cash-for-access fundraisers.
The Premier surprised the legislature on Monday by announcing she will speed up campaign finance reforms promised for the fall, and took a harder line on corporate and union contributions than ever before.
"We have moved up our intention to introduce legislation from the fall to the spring," she said. "It's pretty clear to me that we need to move to ban corporate and union donations. That, to me, is not a question at this point."
The Globe and Mail revealed last month that the Ontario Liberal Party frequently holds unpublicized, small-scale fundraisers in which corporations and lobbyists, some of whom do business with the government, pay thousands of dollars for exclusive access to Ms. Wynne and cabinet ministers over cocktails.
After the reports, Ms. Wynne promised legislation this fall to "transition" away from corporate and union contributions.
But over the weekend, the Premier decided to go further. A Liberal source said she fears the controversy over campaign finance could distract from her government's agenda – including building new transit lines and putting in place the Ontario Retirement Pension Plan – and wants to smother the controversy quickly.
Other Liberal insiders acknowledged that the party's fundraising tactics are out of hand, and that Ms. Wynne is well aware the secret events are indefensible.
Also on Monday, the Liberals introduced new legislation to allow all Ontario municipalities to ban corporate and union donations. Currently, only the City of Toronto has this power. The changes to the Municipal Elections Act are part of a package of local government reforms that also allow municipalities to adopt ranked-ballot voting and give them the power to restrict third-party advertising in elections.
These moves come amid a flareup in political donation scandals across the country. In Quebec last month, two former provincial cabinet ministers were charged with taking illegal campaign contributions from companies receiving government contracts. And in British Columbia, Premier Christy Clark is under fire after The Globe revealed that donors are charged up to $20,000 to attend social events with her.
The matter dominated the daily question period at Queen's Park.
Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown repeatedly asked Ms. Wynne if the Liberals have ever pressed corporations doing business with the government to donate as a condition of getting their issues heard.
He cited two events brought to light by The Globe: One in December in which some of the banks that took part in the lucrative privatization of Hydro One paid $7,500 to attend a fundraiser with Finance Minister Charles Sousa and Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli, the ministers in charge of the sale; and one in February, in which energy companies paid $6,000 to have dinner, drinks and one-on-one conversations with Ms. Wynne and Mr. Chiarelli.
"Does the Premier believe that it's appropriate for ministers to fundraise from stakeholders with active files from within their respective ministries, yes or no? Is that conduct appropriate?" Mr. Brown asked.
Ms. Wynne avoided answering the question, instead mocking Mr. Brown for not having raised campaign finance previously: "I do appreciate the member opposite's newfound interest in this issue," she said. She also deflected questions from the NDP by making fun of the party's relative lack of fundraising prowess compared to that of the Liberals. "We know as a party that we have to fundraise in order to run our campaigns and do our work. ... I have no idea how it works in the church basements of the NDP."
Ms. Wynne agreed on Sunday to meet with Mr. Brown and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, who have asked for open consultations on crafting new campaign finance rules.
Mr. Brown said on Monday he favours closely following the federal system, which bans corporate and union donations, caps individual contributions to political parties at $1,525 a year and limits third-party election advertising to $205,800. He also said the province should ban cabinet ministers from soliciting money from companies they regulate or give contracts.
"It blurs all ethical lines when a minister who is going to decide on the contracts, make decisions on policy, is fundraising off those same stakeholders," he said.
Ms. Horwath called for the Premier to hold more open consultations before crafting new laws and put the non-partisan chief electoral officer in charge of the process.
"This is not something that just political parties should be cooking up," she said, adding the process for crafting new rules should be one that "engages civil society, engages labour and business and Ontarians and academia."
Currently, corporations and unions can donate to political parties and politicians in Ontario. The province also has a relatively high contribution cap of $9,975 annually, plus numerous loopholes that allow corporations and unions to give many times that amount. Some give more than $100,000 in a single year by donating through subsidiaries and giving extra during election campaigns and leadership races.
The province also places almost no restrictions on third-party advertising, allowing corporations and unions to spend as much money as they want on their own campaigns at election time. The Working Families Coalition, a union umbrella group, spent $2.5-million in the 2014 election, mostly on attack ads against the PC party.
On the municipal side, giving all cities and towns the power to enact campaign finance legislation will put the ball in their courts.
Advocates of voting reform in Toronto have long called on the province to allow ranked ballots at the local level. They contend such a system would be more democratic by eliminating the threat of vote-splitting and would encourage more positive campaigns, since candidates would have to vie to be the second and third choice of their opponents' supporters.
"We're thrilled to finally see this legislation move forward," said Katherine Skene, co-chair of the Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto. "Ranked ballots would make a huge difference in Toronto, both for the campaign period and election outcomes. We encourage Toronto's city council to use the introduction of this legislation as an opportunity to revisit the issue of electoral reform."
It will now be up to municipalities to decide whether to adopt ranked ballots or stick with first-past-the-post.