Good news for those in Ontario who can't afford to pay $10,000 for a face-to-face meeting with Premier Kathleen Wynne: Starting in January, the price will fall to a low, low $1,550, a veritable bargain, and you won't have to compete with large corporations and powerful unions for face-time, either.
Those changes are at the heart of reforms that Ms. Wynne's Liberal government intends to have in place by the new year. They would bring an end to an era of serial greed that saw the Liberals hold more than 100 fundraising events at which small gatherings of corporate, union and wealthy individual donors paid as much as $10,000 each for access to cabinet ministers and the Premier – access billed by the party as "intimate." The other provincial parties have long done likewise; it was conflict of interest on a grand scale.
Ending the cash-for-access era is overdue, and Ms. Wynne's reforms are a huge step in the right direction – belated, done under duress, put forward only once the Liberals had filled their pockets, but the right move nonetheless.
Ms. Wynne is largely copying the long-standing federal rules. Corporations and unions, until now the chief funders of Ontario politics, will no longer be allowed to donate. The maximum donation from an individual to a party will fall from $9,975 to $1,550; to candidates, it will go from a total of $6,650 to $3,100, with a maximum of $1,550 per candidate.
There will also be a limit of $1,550 on individual donations to party leadership candidates. And a loophole allowing parties to double their donations during elections and by-elections will close.
And for the first time in Ontario, advertising by third-parties – Canada's version of Super Pacs – will be curtailed. Union umbrella groups such as Working Families, which spent $2.5-million attacking the Progressive Conservatives in the 2014 election, will be limited to spending just $100,000 once the writ drops on an Ontario fixed-date general election, and $600,000 in the six months prior. That last number should be lower, but compared to the current free for all, it's significant progress.
These reforms will make Ontario a leader in the growing Canadian field of reducing the influence of money on politics. The province follows steps by Quebec, Manitoba, Nova Scotia and Alberta in cleaning up a rigged game.
Of course, it took a considerable amount of shaming for Premier Wynne to see the light. Prior to her conversion, her government was caught trafficking its cabinet ministers to corporate and union donors, as well as to wealthy individuals. In exchange for $10,000, contributors got a quiet room, a cocktail and the opportunity to buttonhole the minister responsible for the sector in which they made their money.
Ms. Wynne insisted there was nothing unseemly in this, until she suddenly saw something unseemly in it. Her draft reform proposal is described as a move to "level the playing field" – on a field she once claimed was perfectly horizontal, even as she scored $10,000 touchdown after $10,000 touchdown.
But at least she is able to feel shame. In British Columbia, the Liberal government of Christy Clark is immune to that emotion. Corporations, unions and the wealthy can, and do, donate unlimited amounts to Premier Clark's party, often in the five-figure department. The Premier regularly attends cash-for-access fundraisers.
Confronted with criticism, the B.C. Liberals have shrugged it off the way someone might dismiss showing up late for dinner. So give Ms. Wynne credit. Her reforms will bring Ontario into this century, while B.C. remains stuck in the century before the last.
That said, Ontario's proposed changes to the rules aren't perfect, because they don't go far enough. Individual donation limits, though greatly lowered, are still too high. At $1,550 per party and up to $3,100 each for candidates and constituency associations, one wealthy person could give $7,750 to a party every year.
The annual maximum should be closer to $1,000 in total, covering all donations to a party, its candidates and its riding associations.
And then there is Ms. Wynne's plan to give the parties a hefty per-vote subsidy, paid for by taxpayers, to offset the income lost from ending cash-for-access and banning corporate and union money.
Under the proposal, the Liberals would get a $4.2-million gift from taxpayers every year. The PCs and NDP would each get slightly less, in proportion to their 2014 vote. Such subsidies are unnecessary; federal parties survive and thrive without them.
It's as if Ms. Wynne is telling taxpayers, okay, we'll clean up our act but it's going to cost you. There's a churlishness to it. The subsidy would essentially be a payoff for behaving democratically. That's ridiculous. In 2016, political parties can raise all the money they need through modest donations from individual voters.