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Backlash over Wynne’s $6K a person fundraiser shows need for reform: experts

[Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne attend the first ministers’ meeting in Vancouver on March 3, 2016. REUTERS/Ben Nelms]

Experts say the windows of change are blowing against Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s high-priced fundraising dinners as the public demands more transparency and a new federal government has pledged an era of openness.

Postmedia columnist Andrew Coyne was the latest to criticize Wynne for her fundraising efforts, taking aim at a $6,000-per-head reception on Thursday at Toronto’s Four Seasons Hotel that is co-sponsored by lobbying firm Sussex Strategy Group.

Wynne had defended her fundraising as part of her job as party leader, saying raising money is part of the democratic process and that supporters are not buying access.

Wilfrid Laurier University political science professor Barry Kay said Wynne is right when she says fundraising is a core part of her duties.

“It is part of the game, and I’m sure she sees many people who would have no ability to contribute,” he said. “I also suspect that the people who attend these fundraising dinners think they’re buying access, whether she feels that way or not.”

For corporations, unions and others who want to influence the government, he said, giving money to politicians is seen as simply part of the cost of doing business.

“It’s basically rainy day insurance,” he said. “If something that’s relevant to their business comes up before government, they want to be able to have their voices heard.”

Kay noted that donors usually give to every major party, in order to cover their bases should a change in government occur.

Campaign finance laws in Ontario are much more lax than at the federal level, where donations from corporations and unions are banned entirely and individuals have an overall contribution limit of $1,525.

In Ontario, the contribution limit for individuals, corporations and unions is $9,975 to each registered party, with further money allowed to go to constituency associations and individual candidates and with higher limits during elections.

And Wynne is far from alone in offering access for big political donations.

Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown is offering a meet and greet at the provincial legislature for those who donate $5,000 to the party.

And $9,975 would have bought you a seat at the table during a dinner at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel with Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley last month.

Kay said that, regardless of the legality of big donor fundraising events, the public is likely to see them as unsavory.

“In many ways it is part of the game, whether it should be part of the game is another matter,” he said.

Memorial University professor Alex Marland, author of the new “Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control,” said the ethics around fundraising evolve much faster than the law.

“If people are uncomfortable with this, then that’s a signal that perceptions have changed and the legislation needs to be adjusted,” he said.

Marland said it’s a lot harder to raise money at the provincial level than the federal level, so parties have to do their best to raise more money from a smaller pool of donors.

He said the much stricter federal rules and the Trudeau government’s rhetoric of openness and transparency all serve to cast a negative light on high-profile fundraising events such as Wynne’s dinner, but to the provincial parties those are a necessity.

“Money is the lifeblood of politics,” he said. “You have to have it, and nobody should be foolish enough to suggest otherwise. But if it’s causing concern, then there’s an issue.”

Marland said it’s important to discern between access and influence, and that political leaders at all levels want to avoid looking as though they’re beholden to anyone except the voters.

“Nobody throws away their money,” he said. “Obviously you expect something in return. But it’s foolish if you believe because somebody spends $5,000 or $6,000 on a dinner, you can expect a law to change. Politics is more complicated than that.”

Still, he said, change at the federal level and public perception that such sums represent a conflict of interest or even corruption may be enough to push reform.

“It goes against those winds of open access and transparency that are sweeping through,” he said. “If it’s legal but it still looks bad, maybe the law should be looked at.”

A call to Wynne’s media relations team was not returned.