Can Kathleen Wynne change the wild west of political fundraising?

By Steve Paikin - Published on April 1, 2016
Kathleen Wynne
Premier Wynne confirmed this week that she’ll introduce reforms to political fundraising rules. But she didn’t elaborate on the new guidelines.

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After sustaining a steady drumbeat of negative publicity from both the Toronto Star and TVO over her government’s political fundraising techniques, the premier of Ontario appears set to introduce some significant reforms.

For several months, both media organizations have shone the spotlight on tactics that all partiesbut particularly the Ontario Liberals, have used to raise money to fund their activities.

While the fundraising efforts have all been legal, they’ve hardly passed the stink test. Exclusive get-togethers with cabinet ministers and party leaders at thousands of dollars a pop have given the public the impression that corporations and unions have been buying special access to politicians.

And now, former Liberal cabinet ministers such as Dwight Duncan and John Gerretsen have come forward in the Star to decry their past practices and confess how much they hated fundraising.

TVO has also contributed to the public debate over this issue with previous articles on this website and a discussion with three ex-cabinet ministers on The Agenda.

Premier Kathleen Wynne eventually  confirmed this week that she’ll introduce reforms to the fundraising rules. But she didn’t say what the new guidelines would be, when they’d be introduced, or how the public might have its say on the matter.

For what it’s worth, we’ve been down this road before in the province of Ontario. Four decades ago, there were similar howls of outrage about the wild, wild west kind of fundraising that was taking place at Queen’s Park. The premier of the day, Bill Davis, eventually responded with one of the most important and influential commissions in Canadian history.

Dalton Camp, a charter member of Davis’s Big Blue Machine, was tasked with chairing a tri-partisan commission whose mission was to clean up the antiquated and much-criticized election expenses laws. The other members were former Ontario Liberal leader Farquhar Oliver and New Democrat MP Douglas Fisher (whose son Matthew, incidentally, is currently Canada’s longest-serving foreign correspondent. He’s with the National Post).

Davis gave the Camp Commission carte blanche to examine the fundraising system of the 1970s, which offered none of the transparency or spending limits Ontarians now take for granted.

Camp recommended a hard cap on donations, spending limits for campaigns, and requirements to make public who was giving to whom. None of that had been required previously.

The recommendations emerged in November 1974 and were passed by Davis’s majority government in 1975. The new Election Finances Reform Act became a model for other jurisdictions across Canada.

How does Wynne intend to clean up today’s fundraising rules? At the moment, all indications are the new recommendations will come out of the premier’s office. Andrea Horwath, the NDP leader, has criticized that approach, saying all parties and interested Ontarians ought to have input into the new rules. In addition, Horwath says she fears nothing will happen until the Liberals top up their efforts with a final orgy of fundraisers coming in under the wire.

Establishing a process that would require buy-in from both opposition parties and a good chunk of the interested public would certainly go a long way toward diffusing this issue as a burr under the Liberal saddle, which it currently is.

Just ask Bill Davis. 

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