08/22/2016 13:19 EDT | Updated 08/23/2017 01:12 EDT

Ontario opposition parties push for ban on cash-for-access fundraisers

TORONTO — Ontario's Liberal government is suggesting further lowering a cap on political donations in its election finance reform bill, but doesn't appear to be considering a ban on cash-for-access fundraisers.

The Liberals introduced the legislation amid allegations they were selling access to cabinet ministers at high-priced dinners and receptions, though they denied that attendees at those functions influenced government decisions.

A legislative committee studying the government's bill spent the summer holding public hearings ahead of second reading in the fall, and both the government and the opposition parties submitted their proposed amendments Monday.

Currently, the bill would ban corporate and union donations, while limiting individuals to donating $1,550 annually to a party. But in an election year, maximum allowable donations to a party's candidates and constituency associations total $7,750.

The Liberals are now proposing to cap donations to a party, candidates and riding associations at $1,200 each, to total a maximum of $3,600 in an election year.

But the opposition parties said the government's amendments are most notable for what isn't in them.

"The overwhelming voices of concern during the consultation was around the cash for access and Ontarians have every right to be angry about that special access that the Liberals continue to allow," said NDP critic Catherine Fife.

"They had the opportunity through this amendment process to send a clear signal that policies and legislation are not for sale and yet they've left that door wide open."

The Liberals are proposing to require fundraisers to be publicized a week in advance — three days during an election — and to develop, with the opposition, a code of conduct for elected officials governing "stakeholder interactions."

But their amendments, as written, would "essentially allow the cash for access and all the scandalous behaviour that necessitated this committee," said Progressive Conservative Randy Hillier.

"This has to end," he said. "It brings disrepute upon all politicians."

Government spokesman Kyle Richardson said in a statement that the amendments "represent significant changes to Ontario's election fundraising laws."

He noted the Liberals have also proposed an amendment to restrict government advertising in the 60 days before an election period.

Both opposition parties are pushing for amendments that would restore oversight powers to the auditor general on government advertising.

Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk has said that changes the government made last year removed her ability to veto publicly funded government ads she feels are partisan. The government's amendments don't address that.

The bill also proposes to restrict third-party election advertising — there are currently no limits on it.

The committee heard concerns about the proposed new definition of what constitutes political advertising — not just ads about a party or candidate, but also ones that take a position on an issue associated with a party or candidate.

Critics said that could encompass any issue and would stifle third-party voices. The government is also proposing to tweak its definition to "an issue that can reasonably be regarded as closely associated" with a party, leader or candidate.

The committee meets again Monday to begin a clause-by-clause consideration of the bill.