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The ONW Salon: How Best To Replace "Pay For Play"?

Fundraising by political parties has come under intense criticism in both Ontario and federally, while "pay for play" has become a huge issue in the U.S. presidential election. With new rules in Ontario and under consideration by Ottawa, will candidates be able to raise enough money to run proper campaigns? What would the best system look like? We asked our experts Bernie Farber, Blair McCreadie and Tom Parkin.



Tom Parkin:

Real change.

The “pay for play” politics that have now surfaced in Ottawa reminds us that many of the Trudeau gang came from the McGuinty Liberals. However, instead of learning from McGuinty’s errors, it seems Trudeau’s people are committed to repeating them.

And they seem to believe they will avoid McGuinty’s fate – have license to do what they want, break any promise – because Mr. Trudeau is popular. We saw that logic at work last week in Mr. Trudeau's musings on electoral reform. His exact and explicit argument was that because he won and he's popular maybe he doesn’t need to keep his promise.

Mr. Morneau recently attended an intimate $1500/plate event for 15 guests Halifax. Now he's going to another one in November with Big Pharma. This one is hosted by the Chairman of Apotex, who employs well-known Liberal John Duffy as its lobbyist who is actively lobbying Minister Morneau for the company. This is deeply troubling.

On September 29th there was to have been a similar $1500 event – but with the Prime Minister. That event was cancelled because the PM had to travel to attend the funeral of former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres. It was to have been held at a Toronto business club and was reportedly organized by the CEOs of Ellis Don, a large construction firm, and Linamar, Canada’s second-largest auto parts company. These companies have massive interests in infrastructure and trade deals.

We already had our Justice Minister attend one of these types of "pay for play" events with lawyers - while 50-odd court bench appointments were open.

Mr. Trudeau and company seems to think they can just breeze through without addressing the real concerns because Mr. Trudeau is popular. 

The new guidelines about Ministers and fundraising say they must avoid conflict of interest the appearance of conflict of interest. I can’t understand how these pay for play events pass that test. But the Liberals’ argue no rules were broken.

But here’s the problem – the agency responsible for judging if guidelines have been met isn’t Conflict Commissioner Mary Dawson, who is independent. The agency is the very same Privy Council Office that works directly for the Prime Minister.

It’s not that rules haven’t been broken. Anyone who can read can see they have. The problem is Mr. Trudeau doesn’t want to enforce them.


Bernie Farber:

Both the federal government and provincial governments across the country are now struggling with the entire issue of the efficacy of fundraising. Ontario's Kathleen Wynne seems to have imposed the most stringent regulations and there is now an attempt by other provinces and the federal government to do the same.

One thing is clear: the public does not have the stomach for any perceived impropriety. Absolutely no party here is free from blame. I have attended fundraisers thrown by each political party and their only rule until now was "How do I make the most money?"

Yes we need rules. But how do we impose regulations that will not stifle good parliamentarians from running or discourage possible candidates from seeking office? These are the questions I believe we need to deal with.


Blair McCreadie:

With respect to Bernie, it’s not the federal Liberal Party’s fundraising that has landed them on the front page.  It is their hypocrisy.

Bernie is correct when he says that all political parties raise money.  And when the Prime Minister and other Liberals say that they haven’t broken the law when cabinet ministers speak a $1,500 a ticket fundraiser, they haven’t.  But the problem is that Prime Minister held himself (and his entire cabinet) out as abiding by an even higher fundraising standard, i.e. “no preferential access or appearance of preferential access” which, simply put, means having no appearance of “pay to play” fundraising. 

And, having previously adopted a “holier than thou” approach publicly and with great fanfare, they then compound their problem (and fed the story) when they (a) hold intimate, exclusive, high-dollar events with key ministers; (b) take steps to actively keep those events out of the public eye; and (c) when caught out, defend the events by saying that they comply with the laws now in place.   

It is the perception of that double standard – the higher one for public consumption, and the private one that they are actually using – that has gotten the federal Liberals in trouble.

To be clear, I take no issue with political parties raising money where there are reasonable and transparent contribution rules and limits in place.  Party fundraising is an important part of the democratic process and, in my view, that approach is far better than the funding model of “per vote taxpayer subsidies” that is now being pushed by those who want more aggressive election finance reform.  At the risk of climbing on a personal soapbox, I think that the funding model of taxpayer subsidies for political parties is a terrible concept.  Political parties should generate their funding from donations made by willing donors – and not from direct multi-million dollar transfers from Elections Ontario (or Elections Canada) in-between elections.


Tom Parkin:

Not surprisingly, I am less forgiving with Ms. Wynne. She ate all the cookies in the jar and wants to be praised for putting the lid back on it. That doesn't fit in my ethical framework.

Nor does it work to try to suggest all parties are equally blameworthy. Do the other parties have fundraisers with stakeholders? Absolutely true. But Ms. Wynne and company raised this to a high art form. And the critical difference is that Ms. Wynne and Mr. Trudeau are in the government and have the ability to dine out on the suggestion (or perhaps, fear) of stakeholders that attendance will be taken. This is an issue of government - and exercise of government power.

The most galling example is Hydro One. Ms. Wynne denied for months that she had any privatization plan. Then, with the initial public offering done and the fees to brokerages paid out, she held one of these intimate events with the very people who organized the privatization.

Mr. Trudeau said he would fix this by only allowing Ministers to hold fundraising events in the ridings. Then he wrote up the promise as a guideline and gave the Privy Council the role of reviewing it.

Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Mr. Morneau have held fundraising events outside their ridings - unquestionably.  They weren't advertised; perhaps there are others.  And the Conflict Commissioner is barred from investigating or passing judgment. But Mr. Trudeau says it's ok.

If we want to end "pay to play" there are some key steps. Absolutely stop Ministers from fundraising from people lobbying their ministry or making money from it - contractors, consultants, and builders. Lower the maximum contribution level. Establish a pay-per-vote system. Fix the ability to lengthen the campaign period - which has the effect of dramatically increasing the campaign expense limit. Include all expenses under the limit - research, polling, etc. Everything.


Bernie Farber:

Well, Tom, I must admit that my eyes were glazing over with all the blame and folderol that you put forward until you finally came to the crux of the matter. What to do?

I am not going to get into which party leader did what when. Suffice to say that I very much disagree with your assessment, Tom, that all parties don’t have an equal share of the blame. At one time or another one of the three mainstream parties were “the government” in Ontario and they all held high stakes fundraisers. I know - I have been to them in different guises. None were prepared to even consider changes. At least it's now beginning to happen.

Indeed, whether it is Trudeau today or Harper yesterday; whether it’s an NDP, Liberal or Conservative government; all parties want to recruit that candidate who will win. Winning requires money, and with media attention and derision focused on each individual Member of Parliament, provincial and federal, or each candidate’s expenses and fundraising, why would anyone want to run for political office?

Politics is not a profession that one chooses wantonly. Besides needing to have an aptitude for it you also have to be a good fundraiser. All too often this has excluded many potential candidates who could have brought change and integrity to an already suspect system.

Where we agree is in your last few recommendations. But I would also suggest that we will require (as much as this is possible in our system) a non-partisan committee, perhaps uniquely bringing in non-politicians with expertise to craft the needed regulations.

So instead of making this a partisan issue where you apportion blame, let us all be prepared to look for solutions, together.


Blair McCreadie:

I want to pick up on a couple of points raised by Tom and Bernie.  I agree with Tom’s comment about the Premier becoming a recent convert to election finance reform.  Over their 13 years in power at Queen’s Park, the provincial Liberals have grown masterful – and some observers might say, ruthless – in their ability to keep track of which stakeholders are attending Ontario Liberal Party events, and which stakeholders are not.  And, given that the provincial Liberals have become increasingly aggressive on “pay to play” fundraising, it was inevitable that some stakeholders would begin to chafe at those tactics – and then start leaking them to the media.

However, the current challenge for the government – and the Opposition parties – is to ensure that amidst the rush to get this issue off the front page, we don’t create some unintended consequences for our political process.

Let’s take the issue of fundraising events.  I’ve gone to, and spoken at, many such events on behalf of candidates and riding associations over the years as a former Ontario Progressive Conservative Party President.  And, by and large, they weren’t exclusive, high-end events filled with lobbyists and stakeholders.

But in our rush to combat the perception of “pay to play” fundraising, the Ontario government is proposing to ban all MPPs – even political candidates – from attending their own fundraising events.  Personally, I think that this is a wrong-headed approach. 

As Bernie correctly points out, it’s tough to run for office.  Winning campaigns need to raise a lot of money and, for most non-incumbent candidates – in any political party – the often used approach is to hold a number of small to medium-ticket events, and then invite your friends, family, colleagues and local riding activists to support your campaign financially.  That’s not “cash for access” - it’s the grassroots political process at work.  And if the event rules become so tight that it becomes too difficult for local candidates to raise money for their own campaigns, they may simply take a pass on running for office.

And that’s where Bernie and I agree that there is a need to get election finance reform done in a prudent and non-partisan way.  The election finance system needs reform, certainly.  But it is also important that any new rules are not so stringent as to create insurmountable barriers to local candidates who are running for public office – or, in the alternative, leave taxpayers footing the bill for the activities of political parties.









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