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Welcome to Ontario, the America of political party fundraising

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne at a meeting of the First Ministers, First Nations, Inuit and Metis Leaders in Vancouver this month.

Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had some advice for America this week: Be more like Canada. He was referring to the way money has infected the U.S. presidential election, a situation he compared unfavourably to our own federal political financing laws. "One of the things that we did over the past decades was change the role of money in our politics," he said during an online town hall.

He's right. The Chrétien Liberals banned corporate and union donations to political parties in 2004, and in 2006 the Harper Tories extended the ban to donations to candidates. They also lowered the maximum individual donation to $1,000 (it has since risen to $1,575). Several provinces have also removed corporate and union money from politics – Quebec started the trend a generation ago, and Alberta did it just last year.

But there is one galling exception to Canada's otherwise superior political financing regime: Ontario. When it comes to political donations, our biggest province is the land of freedom and opportunity for corporations, unions and the wealthy. The annual donation limit is $9,775 a year, plus another $9,775 during election campaigns – and companies and unions have the same "right" as individuals to donate. Businesses can often find ways to give additional amounts through subsidiaries, with unions able to do the same through local bargaining units.

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Donors can also give up to $6,650 every year to the constituency associations of any one party. What's more, it's possible to give unlimited amounts of money to political action committees that don't officially work for parties, but act as proxies, running ad campaigns supporting or attacking them. There are also no limits at all for donations to leadership campaigns in Ontario.

In any given year, the vast majority of the money collected by Ontario political parties comes from companies and unions, with regular voters left in the dust. It is one of the main reasons that beer is still sold in stores owned by the province's biggest and most politically magnanimous beer companies, and why unions enjoy some of the most generous bargaining conditions in Canada. Who can forget that the Wynne government covered the bargaining costs of three teachers' unions last fall?

This scandalous exception to Mr. Trudeau's image of a country that has lessons to teach the U.S. was highlighted this week when The Globe reported that Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and her energy minister will be hosting a $6,000-per-person dinner that promises "one-on-one" access for executives and other insiders in the province's energy sector.

The fundraiser, scheduled for Thursday in Toronto, happens to come at a critical time for the province's energy sector. Ms. Wynne's government has proposed a cap-and-trade regime to limit greenhouse gases in Ontario, but has said that some companies will be granted free allowances at first as part of a transition period. Many of the province's largest GHG emitters are in the energy sector; they may have a particular reason for wanting to invest in some "one-on-one" access right now.

Ms. Wynne has glibly played down this boondoggle on the grounds that 1) it's legal and 2) fundraising from deep-pocketed donors is an essential part of the democratic process.

And yet the federal government and federal political parties somehow manage to continue to operate democratically without selling access to industry and union leaders. Alberta introduced its ban last year; we suspect Alberta democracy will survive, somehow.

None of this smells right, but few in Ontario politics have any interest in taking a sniff. The two other main parties, the NDP and the Progressive Conservatives, also benefit from the province's American-style politics. The NDP refuses to take a stand on it, while the new PC Leader, Patrick Brown, says he supports bringing the province in line with the federal rules. He wins points for that stand – but in the meantime, he was happy to organize a $5,000-a-person meet and greet at Queen's Park last week.

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When taken to task about her $6,000-a-person dinner, Ms. Wynne complained rather feebly that she gives access to people all the time without charging a dime. "I just spent two-and-a-half hours with mayors from across the region. They didn't pay a cent," Ms. Wynne told the Canadian Press.

How very generous. Why she hasn't monetized all her meetings is a mystery. Perhaps she could install a credit-card-reading turnstile outside her office door.

Or perhaps she could show some courage and bring Ontario into the Canadian ethical fold, by introducing legislation to reform the province's political-funding free-for-all. Her good friend and political ally, Mr. Trudeau, would probably agree with that recommendation, and not just because it's 2016.

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