Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is refusing to commit to banning cash-for-access fundraising – where corporate and union leaders receive exclusive face time with politicians in exchange for large political donations – setting up a showdown between her governing Liberals and opposition parties at a legislative committee next week.
The committee reviewing Bill 201, Ms. Wynne's proposed campaign-finance legislation, begins a clause-by-clause debate on the law Monday. Both the Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats are pushing amendments to the bill that would make cash-for-access illegal. The Liberals hold a majority on the committee.
Ms. Wynne would not agree on Wednesday to allow any of the Tory or NDP amendments to pass, and would not answer questions on why cash-for-access should continue.
"What's interesting about the process that is happening right now is that amendments have been put forward and we've heard from people across the province," she said during an event at a Toronto daycare. "Clause-by-clause hasn't even happened yet. It happens on Monday, so we're going to let that process unfold on Monday."
The Premier suggested cash-for-access could be dealt with at a later date. The bill is currently at first reading and is expected to undergo another vetting by committee in the fall after second reading. But Ms. Wynne wouldn't say why cash-for-access would have to wait, and why she would not commit now to banning the controversial practice.
"There will be an opportunity after second reading for a further discussion. So you can continue to ask this question and we can continue to have this dialogue," she said.
Revelations about cash-for-access by The Globe and Mail over the past six months touched off the campaign-finance furor at Queen's Park and led to Bill 201. The Liberals held more than 150 cash-for-access events during Ms. Wynne's first three years in office. At these fundraisers, companies and unions seeking government policy decisions or contracts – including construction firms, pharmaceutical companies, insurance agencies, electricity companies and banks – paid up to $10,000 for intimate access to the Premier and cabinet ministers, typically over cocktails and dinner, in groups as small as four.
Attorney-General Yasir Naqvi, who is overseeing Bill 201, said making cash-for-access illegal would make it too hard for cabinet ministers to fundraise. If raising money from stakeholders were banned, for instance, he said it could mean that lawyers would not be allowed to attend his events because he has the power as a minister to make decisions that affect them. Mr. Naqvi said he instead favours a Code of Conduct for MPPs that would contain guidelines on raising money from people doing business with government.
"You don't want to disadvantage ministers and parliamentary assistants and party leaders not to be able to engage in any kind of fundraising," he said at Queen's Park Wednesday after a cabinet meeting. "What happens if at my barbecue or my $50 spaghetti dinner 10 lawyers show up to that? Right? So now do we screen them out at the door?"
Progressive Conservative MPP Randy Hillier said Mr. Naqvi's argument is a "red herring." He contended that the new law can differentiate between intimate private events in which stakeholders are given a chance to lobby a politician and larger-scale public fundraisers. The PCs' proposed amendments are worded so that politicians would be barred from pressing stakeholders for money but would not prevent a stakeholder from showing up at a public political event.
"Our amendments don't prevent ministers from meeting stakeholders, they don't prevent stakeholders from just showing up somewhere – but the minister and their staff can't make a phone call and say 'Come to my $10,000 event,'" said Mr. Hillier, who sits on the committee reviewing the bill.
NDP MPP Catherine Fife said Ms. Wynne's attempt to delay the cash-for-access discussion shows she is not serious about clamping down on the practice. The committee, she said, has spent all summer hearing from experts and concerned Ontarians about cash-for-access, and can move forward now.
"There is no reason for us to delay. What we have here is a Premier who does not want to ban cash-for-access," Ms. Fife said. "Bill 201 stems from a distrust people have with politicians soliciting funds from stakeholders. That's the impetus, that's the thrust of the work we've done as a committee all summer long."
Ms. Fife said simply writing a Code of Conduct is not enough because it would not contain any penalty for breaking the rules.
"A Code of Conduct is not actionable, it cannot be monitored, it is too weak," she said. "Bill 201 is open right now. There is no reason why we can't embed very clear rules around conflict of interest for all MPPs."