The Toronto Star’s Martin Regg Cohn has done a good journalistic service by exposing some of the means by which the Ontario Liberal Party raises money.
Cohn essentially exposes a pay-to-play fundraising scheme, in which stakeholders are told if they want to meet a cabinet minister, a donation to the Liberal party would be a splendid idea.
For example, he reports that Health Minister Eric Hoskins recently held a $1,000-per-ticket “exclusive event” co-hosted by the party and the Ontario Long Term Care Association promising “quality time” with Hoskins and special “face time.”
The association said its members could “discuss the sector with the minister, up close and personal.”
Let’s acknowledge a few realities here. Political parties need money to do their thing: pay staff, research issues, and run campaigns. The law provides for strict limits on how much they can raise. People get that.
What’s causing increasing concern among people I’ve talked to is the notion that the Liberals are using their advantage as the governing party to sell access to their cabinet ministers --- the same cabinet ministers who then regulate the people who contributed money to them. It creates the appearance of a blatant conflict of interest, but everybody sloughs it off as a contribution to democracy.
Obviously, all stakeholders want to ingratiate themselves to their minister in hopes of advancing their issues. But I have heard from numerous sources that the Liberals have taken this to a new level. They say there is a clear perception now that unless you contribute to the Liberal Party, you simply won’t get a meeting with a minister.
Even Premier Kathleen Wynne acknowledged this week that it made her uncomfortable to learn that government-created agencies such as the Ontario Tire Stewardship were making political contributions to the Liberal party in order to get face time with ministers.
We’ve been here before.
This is reminiscent of something David Peterson’s Liberal government tried 30 years ago. In 1985, the first Liberal government in 42 years wanted to take advantage of its newfound status by creating LEAF, the Liberal Economic Advisory Forum. For $1,000, LEAF “members” could get face time with the premier himself. For $250, you could get access to the chair of the management board of cabinet; for $150, the minister of health.
“The Liberal party is charging for access to ministers,” Tory MPP Dennis Timbrell said during one question period at the time.
Former premier Frank Miller, then leader of the Opposition, said: “The Premier is raising funds for his [party], all on the assumption that somehow … paying money gets one in to see ministers and therefore have influence. Is that not so?”
Premier Peterson denied the allegations: “Let me stand firmly in my place to tell the member that no one can purchase influence for any amount of money, be it $1,000, $2,000 or $10,000.” He added that all parties use whatever opportunities they have to hold fundraisers to get the money they need to operate.
But Bob Rae, then the NDP leader, wasn’t having any of it: “I hope the premier will agree what is different about LEAF is that it promises special access to people who contribute more than a certain amount of money to the premier and cabinet ministers. That is precisely what it does.”
Eventually, the Peterson government shut down LEAF because the optics were terrible. They may have genuinely thought that money wasn’t buying access, but it sure looked like it did.
Three decades later, the Liberals are back at it. The size of the donations being sought is much bigger, but the principal problem remains the same.
The Liberals seem to be content to snuggle right up to --- and maybe cross --- the line of what’s an appropriate way to raise funds.
More than a decade ago, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s government changed the Canada Elections Act to prohibit corporations and unions from donating to federal political parties. It’s certainly not a perfect system, but it’s partially removed the optics of companies giving money, then getting friendly government policy in return, or unions giving money and getting higher wage settlements in return.
Isn’t it time Ontario had a new look at its fundraising laws, and brought in something that passes the stink test? Because the current practice sure doesn’t.
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