10/27/2016 10:52 EDT | Updated 10/27/2016 10:58 EDT

Ontario Liberals' Fundraising Bill Has 'Egregious' Loophole: Tories

TORONTO — Ontario's Liberal government has nixed the idea of using legislation to ban chiefs of staff and other behind-the-scenes political decision makers from attending fundraisers, as they prepare to prohibit politicians from doing the same.

The Liberals released a list Wednesday of amendments they are proposing to an election finance reform bill, which they introduced amid criticism over fundraising events that saw cabinet ministers attend private, high-priced functions with stakeholders. The bill would ban corporate and union donations.

kathleen wynne

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne speaks in Toronto on Oct. 21, 2016. (Photo: Chris Young/CP)

Under the amendments, any members of provincial parliament, party leaders, nomination contestants, candidates and leadership contestants would not be able to attend fundraisers.

But they could still attend events where the ticket price only recovers the cost of the hosting it, and solicit funds by mail, phone or email.

Last month, Attorney General Yasir Naqvi said he had not ruled out extending the proposed fundraiser ban to senior political staff, but there is no language to that effect in the new amendments, which the Opposition decried as a huge loophole.

Still 'cash for access'?

"What started all this, of course, is cash for access here in the Liberal government," said Progressive Conservative Vic Fedeli. "The fact that today's amendments show that they're still going to allow the chiefs of staff, that's egregious. They're just turning the cash for access from the politicians to the Liberal government's chiefs."

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath echoed Fedeli's comments, saying even with the new proposed amendments, the bill still allows cash for access.

"My biggest worry is we don't draw things underground," Horwath said. "Where's the transparency around cabinet ministers picking up the phone and asking directly for money from people that they might have met with?"

Naqvi said he considered the issue of political staff, but has decided that a code of conduct will govern them by Jan. 1.

Federal cousins facing fundraising controversies, too

The federal Liberal government, meanwhile, is under fire for fundraising by the finance minister that critics say is a conflict of interest that breaks the prime minister's own guidelines for fundraisers.

Ontario will "learn lessons" from Ottawa's code of conduct to make sure its rules have "actual teeth," Naqvi said.

To offset the impact on constituency associations, the Liberals are proposing subsidies of $25,000 per year, divided among the parties in each riding that received at least two per cent of the vote in the previous election.

The amendments would also require parties to advertise fundraising events on their websites a week in advance.

Elections watchdog to ensure compliance

The fundraisers from which politicians are banned are defined as events "held for the purpose of raising funds for the party, constituency association, nomination contestant, candidate or leadership contestant registered under this Act by whom or on whose behalf the event is held, and where a charge by the sale of tickets or otherwise is made for attendance."

When presented with hypothetical scenarios about how politicians could skirt the letter of the law, Naqvi said it will be up to the chief electoral officer to ensure compliance with the spirit of the legislation as well.

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