Premier Doug Ford’s governing Progressive Conservatives are revving up their money machine.
After loosening campaign finance laws introduced by former premier Kathleen Wynne following a 2016 Star exposé of Liberal fundraising, the Tories are banking on a cash windfall.
Ford will headline the $1,250-a-plate Toronto Leader’s Dinner on Feb. 27 at the Toronto Congress Centre on Dixon Road in Etobicoke.
Next Tuesday, Energy Minister Greg Rickford will speak at an $800-a-ticket cocktail party at the Albany Club on King St. East.
The two events are the first big-ticket fundraisers since the Conservatives, who defeated the Liberals last June, amended the previous campaign finance legislation in the Restoring Trust, Transparency and Accountability Act.
In a message to supporters, PC Ontario Fund chair Tony Miele said the Tories “need your help to build up our party’s financial resources as quickly as possible.”
Miele touted the premier’s dinner as “the biggest fundraiser in our party’s history.”
Last Friday, Ford attended a modest $25-a-plate spaghetti dinner for 200 supporters at Kitchener’s Bingemans Conference Centre.
Under Wynne’s restrictions, all MPPs, candidates, and staff were forbidden from attending any event where money was raised for political parties.
But last November Finance Minister Vic Fedeli changed the law to enable politicians and their staff to go to fundraisers.
That had been the case prior to Wynne’s reforms almost three years ago amid accusations of the Liberals accepting “cash-for-access.”
Green Leader Mike Schreiner said Tuesday he was “disappointed” with the trend back to such fundraisers.
“Cash-for-access dinners have made a return to Ontario politics and it’s a bad sign for democracy. Pay-to-play politics is good for those with deep pockets, but not good for the people,” said Schreiner.
“At $1,250 per-plate to buy the ear of the premier, this is not a ‘government for the people.’ It’s a government for big banks, big developers, big nuclear, and big oil.”
In his amendments last fall, Fedeli retained the Grits’ prohibition on corporate and union donations, but some loopholes have emerged in the new legislation.
The Tories repealed a section that forced donors to “certify, in a form approved by the Chief Electoral Officer, that the person has not acted contrary” to the ban on trade unions or corporations donating cash in the name of their members or employees.
Both Conservative and Liberal fundraising experts have privately said all political parties could exploit that.
“If you don’t fill out a disclosure form, then what’s to stop a corporation donating on your behalf?” a veteran Liberal confided last fall, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the fundraising practices.
“It was the only thing in the act that required any threshold of activity on behalf of a donor to prove that a corporation wasn’t funnelling money through the backdoor,” the Liberal said.
A veteran Tory, who also requested anonymity, joked at the time that “it’s a loophole you could drive a Brink’s truck through.”
However, Ford’s government has said filling out the disclosure form was a nuisance to donors. The Tories stress that it is still illegal to accept money from a corporation or union to donate as an individual.
The revamped provincial legislation mirrors existing federal campaign laws.
In the 2016 Liberal bill, donors would have to certify in writing that they did not donate “funds that do not actually belong to the person; or any funds that have been given or furnished by any person or group of persons or by a corporation or trade union for the purpose of making a contribution.”
Fedeli is also phasing out the public $2.71 per-vote subsidies for political parties before the 2022 election.
The governing Tories, who got more than 2.3 million votes, receive almost $6.3 million a year, while the NDP get $5.2 million, the Liberals around $3 million, and the Greens about $700,000.
Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie