All three political parties at Queen's Park are hedging on the question of whether more light should be shone on their caucus spending.
Responding to The Globe and Mail's report on Thursday that a gap in transparency rules allowed millions of public dollars to be quietly directed to Liberal insiders during Dalton McGuinty's time in office, neither the government nor the opposition would commit to making more such payments public, tightening rules on how they are awarded, or making the payments subject to freedom-of-information requests.
Multiple sources suggested all three parties benefit from the opaqueness around how they spend their legislative funds – in particular, the fact that payments to companies or individuals that total less than $50,000 in a given year do not have to be disclosed publicly.
A spokesperson for Premier Kathleen Wynne would say only that all three parties will be able to consider such rules when the government's proposed accountability act goes to committee. At present, the act includes does not include provisions related to caucus budgets.
Speaking on behalf of her party, Progressive Conservative MPP Lisa MacLeod acknowledged a lack of familiarity with the caucus spending rules before suggesting "it's actually a broader conversation than simply talking about the rules around here," because the Liberals are disinclined to follow them. Other Tories declined to comment further, deferring to Ms. MacLeod.
Meanwhile, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath responded to a question about whether the rules should be changed by expressing her enthusiasm for a coming review of the role of political staff by Integrity Commissioner Lynn Morrison. While saying Ms. Morrison is pleased by the NDP's interest in working with her, an official in the Integrity Commissioner's office stressed that contracts awarded with caucus funds are not within the review's scope.
Based on each party's number of seats in the legislature, "caucus appropriations" are intended for research, communication and administrative services, but have virtually no checks on how they are spent.
The Globe's review of annual payments over $50,000, which are listed on the province's public accounts with no information about what they are for, found that, over the past decade, they included contracts to two companies owned by Mr. McGuinty's campaign director, Don Guy, in the same year; payments to Liberal strategist Warren Kinsella through a company in his then-wife's name; and a contract worth more than $320,000 to the company of Philip Dewan after he was elbowed out as Mr. McGuinty's chief of staff.
These were in addition to the nearly $160,000 paid through a numbered company to Peter Faist, the boyfriend of the former premier's deputy chief of staff, which a police investigation helped bring to light. (Mr. Faist is not the subject of the investigation.)
While there is no indication any of those transactions were illegitimate, there is also no way of knowing what services were provided at public expense.
Former senior political staff in Mr. McGuinty's government have also told The Globe and Mail that they were offered "top-ups" to their salaries, through contracts under $50,000 that would never have to be made public.
On Thursday, Liberals said the opposition parties also gave caucus contracts to political allies. The Tories, for instance, paid $83,000 in 2008-09 to Responsive Marketing Group, a firm that specializes in voter contact; hundreds of thousands of dollars also went to Strategic Communications Inc., which plays a similar role for the NDP.
It is clearer what the services were in those and other cases than in some of the Liberals' contracts.
However, partly because of their smaller budgets, most opposition contracts were under $50,000, so nothing is known about them.
On Thursday, Auditor-General Bonnie Lysyk poured cold water on some Liberals' assertion that her office reviews caucus payments, saying that, while she can monitor whether parties stay within their budgets, the rules on how they may be spent are too vague to allow audits of individual contracts.
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