Back in March of 2013, the minority Liberal government of Kathleen Wynne tabled a budget that included a promise to reduce private auto insurance premiums by 15 per cent. The policy, when implemented by August 2015, would save Ontarians hundreds of dollars a year. It was included in the budget in a bid to get the NDP's support for the budget.
It worked. The NDP gave their support and the budget passed. But the 15-per-cent cuts to insurance premiums still haven't happened. In January of this year, six months after the August 2015 deadline, Ms. Wynne said the 15-per-cent reduction was more of a "stretch goal" than an actual target. That was news to the NDP and to Ontario voters, who had heard Finance Minister Charles Sousa repeat the pledge after the Liberals were elected to a majority in 2014.
So why did the Liberals break their promise? Hard to say. But for good or ill they made the pledge, and had the legislative and regulatory tools required to fulfill it. Instead, they settled on lowering Ontario insurance premiums – the highest in Canada – by about 7 per cent.
Politicians bend promises all the time, of course. But this story isn't complete without mentioning that, based on a new Globe investigation of the cash-for-access practices that became the norm under the Wynne government, the Liberal Party held two small, intimate fundraisers with insurance company officials after they made that promise to lower premiums.
One was on June 9, 2014, just before the 2014 election on June 14, and was attended by Mr. Sousa. It was a small event – just 12 tickets were sold at $5,000 a piece. At least three insurance companies bought tickets.
The second one, on Oct. 5, 2015, was even smaller. Only nine tickets were sold, at $3,000 each, and there were at least five insurance companies present.
These types of cash-for-access events, at which the Liberal Party brokered access to cabinet ministers in exchange for hefty payments to the party, always came with a promise to the corporate and union ticket buyers that they would have direct, intimate contact with the minister responsible for their sectors, often over a drink and dinner in a swank hotel or restaurant.
The Globe found that the Liberals held these events for construction companies and developers, for the banks involved in the privatization of Hydro One, for companies holding service contracts with the Ontario government and for pharmaceutical companies whose drugs are listed for coverage under the provincial health system.
The Liberals held 159 such private events and another 64 fundraisers from 2013 to the end of 2015, and raised a total of $19.6-million.
The party and Ms. Wynne vehemently deny that these pay-to-meet-the-minster events in any way led to the government favouring the paying attendees with contracts or favourable policy decisions. But they can't deny that the perception of a conflict of interest exists, one that is intolerable to any reasonable person.
The government is also in no position to pretend that the donors – to whom the Liberals explicitly promised access to the elected official making the decisions regarding their business and financial interests – wouldn't plead their cases, such as arguing for a slower reduction in insurance premiums. The donors did not write multi-thousand dollar cheques just for the food and an opportunity to discuss the Toronto Maple Leafs' chances this year.
This is how these kinds of cash-for-access schemes poison politics. Voters cannot be certain that favours aren't being traded; in fact, it is naive to believe that a donor would not bring up a government policy that directly affected his or her bottom line.
The Liberals in British Columbia are running a similar racket, raking in millions from corporations in the energy, mining, forestry and real estate sectors, all of which are industries that depend on a light government touch in order to turn the greatest profit.
The Ontario Liberal Party took things to a new low, however, by setting quotas for cabinet ministers that required them to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars from the corporations and unions their departments do business with, or from industries that their departments oversee. The conflict was so obvious and disgraceful that the Wynne Liberals had no choice but to reverse course. The government is now moving to significantly improve the province's extremely loose political fundraising rules by banning corporate and union donations. It is also reducing the maximum annual individual donation to $1,550 per party.
But cash-for-access events will still be allowed. The party in power will still be able to leverage its influence by selling tickets to meetings with ministers. The game will be less lucrative, thanks to lower donation limits – although with loopholes that allow donors to multiply donations across candidates and constituency associations, one person will be able to give $7,750 to one party every year.
That means that a wealthy business owner will still be able to attend an exclusive event and gain intimate access to a cabinet minister. Political parties, particularly the one in power, will still be able to finance themselves by selling face-time with decision makers. Ears will still be bent and cases will still be pleaded, for a price.
Plus, the new rules won't be in place until the fall. The result is that the Liberals, along with the NDP and the Progressive Conservatives, are urging stakeholders to make their supersized donations, ASAP – while they still can. Call now: Operators are standing by! As one critic told The Globe, this summer will be the "Black Friday" of corporate donations. Yippee.