Why Ontario's political fundraising rules won't likely change soon

Would you like to have some one-on-one time with Premier Kathleen Wynne? The Ontario Liberal Party can arrange that, for $6,000 (cocktails included). The Ontario PCs and NDP can do something similar, for a similarly hefty price.

The dirty little secret of Ontario politics: well-heeled firms pay to access the politically powerful

Premier Kathleen Wynne and Deputy Premier Deb Matthews say they're willing to look at changing Ontario's political fundraising rules, but are not committing to any specific changes. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

Would you like to have some "one-on-one" time with Premier Kathleen Wynne? The Ontario Liberal Party can arrange that, for $6,000 (cocktails included).

How about a special trip to Queen's Park as guest of PC Leader Patrick Brown? Just donate $5,000 to the Ontario PC Party and that could be yours.

Or perhaps you'd rather fork over $9,975 to the Ontario NDP to get dinner with Alberta Premier Rachel Notley? 

These three political fundraisers have all come to light in the past few weeks, opening the curtain on the dirty little secret of Ontario politics: well-heeled companies paying for access to the politically powerful.   

In the wake of these revelations, a growing number of voices (for instance, TVO's Steve Paikin, the Toronto Star's Martin Regg Cohn, and the Globe and Mail) are calling for change. But it sure doesn't seem like change is imminent.

"The money to run a party has to come from somewhere," Premier Kathleen Wynne said Monday after her $6,000-a- ticket fundraiser was revealed. "We have to be able to raise money in order to run campaigns, in order to get our message out into communities." 

Wynne said the government is "engaged in discussing" possible changes to the political donation rules. But the only commitment she has made is to consider limits on election spending by so-called "third-party" interest groups, such as unions. 

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath raised money last month through a $9,975-a-head dinner in Toronto, with Alberta Premier Rachel Notley as the featured guest. (Lars Hagberg/ Canadian Press)

Treasury Board President (and Ontario Liberal campaign co-chair) Deb Matthews says she's willing to look at a broader change of the rules, but wouldn't commit to when such a review would happen, what its scope would be, or even to doing a review. 

Several times in our five-minute interview on Tuesday Matthews mentioned how the Liberals brought in legislation requiring speedy public disclosure of who makes campaign contributions back in 2005. 

"Is it time to look again? Probably it is, and I welcome that," she said. "These are things that we're going to consider very carefully." 

Granted, running a political party is expensive, even a Canadian provincial one. The victorious Liberals spent $8 million on the 2014 election campaign, the PCs nearly $9.5 million and the NDP less than half that, $4.6 million. (The three biggest third-party spenders -- all unions or union-funded -- spent a total of $6 million.) 

Political contribution limits in Ontario

  • $9,975 to a central party in any year
  • an additional $9,975 to a central party for each campaign period
  • $6,650 to a party's constituency associations in any year (but no more than $1,330 to each constituency)
  • $6,650 to a party's candidates during a campaign period, (but no more than $1,330 to each candidate)

And granted, as both Wynne and Matthews say, the money has to come from somewhere. 

"All political parties have to raise money to fund campaigns," said Matthews. "We have to raise money, unless we want to publicly fund campaigns, and I don't think there'd be an appetite for that." 

'That's where people get worried'

What's really at issue is how the money is raised. Multi-thousand-dollar-per-ticket cocktail parties pitched as a way to get access to the powerful? It's hard to imagine a lot of ordinary folks would be really comfortable with that. 

"Ontarians wonder whether some of these fundraisers are utilized to influence the policy decisions of a government, and I think that's where people get worried and get concerned," said NDP leader Andrea Horwath. (NOTE: Her party was the beneficiary of this $9,975-a-head dinner with Alberta Premier Rachel Notley.)

Labour groups spent more than $6 million during the 2014 Ontario election campaign, much of it targeted against Tim Hudak and the PCs. The Liberals are considering putting limits on such spending. (Ontario Federation of Labour)

Horwath says Ontario's political finance rules "absolutely" need to be changed. 

"Now is the time," she told me Tuesday. "I really think there needs to be a broader discussion, engaging the political parties, engaging Elections Ontario, engaging the public, so that it isn't just a decision that's going to perhaps benefit the reigning political party." 

Reforms 'overdue'

PC leader Patrick Brown also says he wants change, including looking at banning corporate and union donations, as was done federally in 2004

"The type of reforms we've seen in other provinces and the federal government are probably overdue in Ontario," Brown said Tuesday in an interview. 

"It's the right thing to do," he said. "When you allow so much money in it diminishes the voices of Ontarians in the democratic process."  (NOTE: The PCs are offering donors who pledge $5,000 privileged access to the party leader, caucus and the members' lounge at Queen's Park.) 

Donors who pledge $5,000 to the Ontario PCs become members of the party's "Victory Club," with privileged access to the party leader, caucus and the member's lounge at Queen's Park.

Brown describes Ontario as Canada's "Wild Wild West" of political donations. That's not quite true. The title really belongs to the no-limit jurisdictions of Saskatchewan and British Columbia, where you can spend as much as you want on a political party. 

Yet with an election just two years away, and an apparently minimal appetite from the government for significant changes, it's unlikely Ontario will follow Alberta, Manitoba, Nova Scotia or Ottawa and ban corporate and union donations, before the campaign buses start rolling again.

Political contribution rules in select provinces: 

  • Quebec: $100 annual limit on contributions to each party or independent candidate.
  • British Columbia: No donation limits, other than on how much a party or candidate can accept in anonymous donations.
  • Alberta: Corporate and union donations banned, personal contributions allowed up to $30,000 in an election year, $15,000 in non-election years.
  • Saskatchewan: No limits on corporate or union donations, and donors don't have to live in the province. 
  • Manitoba: Corporate and union donations banned, personal contributions limited to $3,000/year.
  • Nova Scotia: Only individuals can donate, to a maximum of $5,000/year. 


Mike Crawley

Senior reporter

Mike Crawley is a senior reporter for CBC News, currently covering health. He began his career as a newspaper reporter in B.C., filed stories from 19 countries in Africa as a freelance journalist, then joined the CBC in 2005. Mike was born and raised in Saint John, N.B.


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