Ontario’s Government Should Not Be For Sale

This article was originally published on the Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/mike-schreiner/political-fundraising_b_9565…

Ontario’s government should not be for sale. But it certainly appears that Premier Wynne has put out a big for sale sign by hosting high-priced private dinners for deep-pocketed insiders.

Sadly, the premier has defended the indefensible by saying that corporate fundraising is part of the political process.

She has attempted to justify her high-priced private dinners by claiming that everyday citizens have the same access as those ponying up $6,000 a plate. If this true, then for that price people must be getting some extra fine food.

The premier and the political establishment dismiss critics of corporate fundraising by hiding behind the rules. Well, I say the rules stink.

It is true that fundraising has long been part of the political process. But the Ontario Liberals seem to be taking this practice to new heights — or lows — with revelations from Martin Regg Cohn that cabinet ministers are required to meet Liberal party fundraising quotas as high as $500,000 per year.

Not to be outdone by the Liberals, Ontario’s two status quo opposition parties are also in on the corporate fundraising game.

Ontario PC leader Patrick Brown is charging industry insiders $5,000 for a private meet-and-greet at Queen’s Park. The NDP has upped the ante by charging $9,750 in a two-for-one special to meet with leader Andrea Horwath and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley.

Former cabinet ministers have told me that high-priced private access to top government officials doesn’t affect policy. I can’t verify these claims, but I do know that even the perception of influence undermines trust in the political process.

After all, why would smart, successful corporate insiders spend big sums of money on private dinners with the premier and other political leaders if they didn’t anticipate a return on investment?

In 2013, the head of Bruce Power hosted an exclusive $100,000 fundraiser for the Liberals at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto.

Premier Wynne was the guest of honour, along with Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli. A few months later the Liberals decided to shelve plans for publicly owned rival Ontario Power Generation’s new nuclear reactors. Two years later the Liberals announced a multi-billion non-tendered contract with Bruce Power to rebuild reactors at the Bruce Nuclear Station.

Last year we learned that the Beer Store’s corporate owners had funneled more than $1.1 million to Ontario’s three status quo parties over the past decade in order to maintain its quasi-monopoly.

The Liberals received the lion’s share of that lucrative pie. In addition, the UFCW, which represents the Beer Store’s 6,000 unionized workers, contributed $140,000 to both the Liberals and New Democrats over a two-year period.

I, along with a number of NGOs, slammed the Liberals for gutting their own world-class Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2013.

During a media scrum at Queen’s Park, I was asked why I thought the government was dismantling its own legislation. At a loss to explain, I suggested that reporters should follow the money. Acting on my own advice, GPO volunteers used Elections Ontario data to determine that 30 construction and mining corporations alone donated more than $180,000 to the Ontario Liberals in the year they gutted the ESA.

I can’t say for sure that corporate money directly influences government policy. I cansay that the system opens the door to access and influence for money.

It’s clear that Ontario’s political fundraising rules don’t pass the stink test. And I’m guessing that most citizens without $6,000 to drop on a private dinner with the premier would agree.

Like me, I assume you are tired of Liberal, PC and NDP MPPs defending these practices as part of the rules that is the political game in Ontario.

Well, folks, we need political leaders that won’t play that game. We need to change the game.

The federal government has banned corporate and union donations to political parties. Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec and Nova Scotia have done it. Even the city of Toronto has done it.

Today, as I was literally submitting this blog, the premier for the first time talked about “transitioning” away from corporate and union donations with legislation in the fall.

Why wait? The time to act is now. Ontario needs to ban corporate and union donations to political parties today and allow municipalities in Ontario to ban them as well.

We can’t afford to have our democracy stink because of rules that give corporate insiders privileged access to our political leaders.