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The Ontario Liberals are trading cash for access. How is that even legal?

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne attends the funeral for former Toronto mayor Rob Ford at St. James Cathedral in Toronto on Wednesday.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Should the Ontario Liberal Party be investigated by police for influence-peddling? That will seem like a far-fetched idea to some. After all, as Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne keeps saying, everything her party and her cabinet members do to raise money conforms with the laws of the province.

But the revelation this week that the Liberal Party sets massive fundraising quotas for cabinet ministers, and then asks those ministers to hit up corporate and union stakeholders in the sectors overseen by their respective departments, is too immense a breach of ethics to be swept under the table without further consequence.

There is, in fact, language in the Criminal Code that seems to apply to the Liberals' fundraising scheme. Even if this contention goes no further than this editorial, it is still evidence of just how depraved the whole boondoggle really is. Yes, what the Liberals are doing may be legal, but only by the thinnest of margins.

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The money raised by the Liberal scheme comes from large donations paid by corporations, unions and wealthy private citizens. Those donations are paid in the form of expensive tickets to dinners and cocktail receptions where the attendees are promised intimate, one-on-one meetings with the cabinet ministers who have direct influence over the sectors in which they operate.

For instance, on Dec. 7 of last year, one of the banks involved in the privatization of Hydro One held a $7,500-per-person fundraiser that raked in $165,000 for the Ontario Liberals. The event was billed in an e-mail from the Bank of Nova Scotia executive who promoted it to his counterparts at other banks as a chance for "a small group of senior executives to spend an informal evening with the Ministers of Energy & Finance."

Under Ontario's extra-loose election finance laws, this appears to be legal. And yet, at the same time, the Criminal Code of Canada says anyone commits an indictable offence who, "having or pretending to have influence with the government or with a minister of the government or an official, demands, accepts or offers or agrees to accept for himself or another person a reward, advantage or benefit of any kind as consideration for co-operation, assistance, exercise of influence or an act or omission in connection with the transaction of business with or any matter of business relating to the government."

That could fairly describe the Ontario Liberal Party. It is using its influence over cabinet ministers to sell access to the ministers to people who have a financial interest in the ministers' decisions.

Yes, as Ms. Wynne keeps saying, it is perfectly acceptable under Ontario law for corporations, unions and individuals to donate large sums of money to political parties. The spending limits are high, and the loopholes almost bottomless. Donors can write almost all the cheques they want and send them to the party or parties of their choice.

While there is no explicit promise of a quid pro quo in this exchange, there has always been a nudge-nudge, wink-wink relationship between large donors and the politicians they support. Nobody is donating out of the goodness of their heart. It's a trade.

To put all voters on something closer to an equal footing, the federal government and some provinces have banned union and corporate donations. They have also set relatively low limits on personal donations so that the wealthy can't have a grossly disproportionate influence on governments and politicians.

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Ontario's laws are the antiquated version, where the wealthiest people and biggest corporations and unions are allowed to vastly out-influence the average voter. British Columbia's laws are even more lax.

But what the Ontario Liberals have done is exploit these outdated laws to an extreme degree. They are using their advantaged position as the governing party to parlay access for cash. And to do so they have created a system that institutionalizes the expectation of a quid pro quo, or at the very least makes it explicit that one is possible.

No reasonable voter would agree that this is how government should work. The reasonable voter can accept that corporations, unions and advocacy groups will try to influence government decisions in the confines of the legislature and under the rules of lobbying. The reasonable voter can also accept that these powerful and rich entities will have more resources at their disposal than the average person.

But what no reasonable person can swallow is that these interested parties are being invited to exert their outsize influence on government in exchange for a fee paid to the Ontario Liberal Party for brokering the access. It looks like influence-peddling, because that's what it is. And yet the people peddling their influence in return for donations keep reminding us that it's legal.

It shouldn't be. Ms. Wynne, as premier and leader of the Liberal Party, is flirting with the edges of illegality, and she knows it.

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