TORONTO — A pricey Progressive Conservative fundraising gala where attendees can rub shoulders with key members of government doesn't constitute cash-for-access, Premier Doug Ford said ahead of the event in Toronto on Wednesday.
Opposition parties have raised concerns that the 2019 Leader's Dinner — where tickets cost $1,250 — would grant opportunities for people to influence cabinet ministers.
But Ford defended the event and said his party frequently hosts smaller fundraisers across the province where people have a chance to hear directly from him.
"I'm going up to Muskoka on Friday for a $25 dinner, a spaghetti dinner, to talk to the real people," Ford said. "I encourage everyone to come out Friday to listen to the great things that this government has done for the common folk."
This is real people coming to our event tonight.Todd Smith
Government House Leader Todd Smith said Wednesday's gala was "absolutely not" a cash-for-access event.
"These are personal donations," he said. "This is real people coming to our event tonight."
Media are not permitted to attend the sold-out gala, where Ford is expected to deliver a keynote address to an audience that will include several members of cabinet. The Progressives Conservatives have billed the event as "the biggest fundraiser Ontario has ever seen."
A spokesman for the Progressive Conservative party said the event will attract people from across the province and denied that the gala offered special treatment for attendees.
"Anyone who claims that selling tickets will somehow translate to more access to government officials is woefully misguided," said Marcus Mattinson.
Ford government changed fundraising rules
The dinner comes after Ford's government changed fundraising rules to allow the premier and cabinet ministers to attend such events, something the previous Liberal regime banned in 2017.
The Tories announced in November that they were also raising the fundraising limits for individual donors from $1,222 to $1,600 and phasing out taxpayer-funded subsidies provided to political parties.
The Liberals had altered party fundraising rules to ban corporate and union donations and bar legislators from attending fundraisers. The ban on corporate and union donations remains in place.
According to the latest figures available from Elections Ontario, the Tories are far ahead of their opposition rivals when it comes to fundraising this year. In the first two months of 2019, Ford's party has raised just over $604,000. The New Democrats raised over $30,000, the Ontario Liberal Party raised $20,000, and the Green Party raised over $13,000.
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NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said events like Wednesday's gala are what made people angry about the fundraising system before the Liberals changed the rules.
"It says to the rest of Ontario, 'we're not going to pay attention to you, we're not going to listen to you, we don't care about you unless you can give us money to help our political party," she said.
Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said the gala is a return to cash-for-access events.
"When big money gets a hold on Ontario politics it's bad for democracy and it (doesn't) make people feel like government is there for everyone," he said.
Interim Liberal leader John Fraser said the public must have confidence that the people who purchase tickets to the gala do not have undue influence on the government.
"They're a new government and $1,250 a ticket is a lot of money, it's too rich," he said. "Maybe for going to fundraisers it should be a different limit. I think people have a genuine concern that certain people get ... access."
Old rules let corporations wield power: prof
Robert MacDermid, a retired York University professor who is an expert in political finance rules, said under Ontario's previous fundraising regime, a small number of corporate donors exerted influence by donating large sums of money. It's much less likely under the current rules that one donor who buys a $1,250 will have undue influence on the government, he said.
MacDermid noted, however, that compared to the federal U.S. fundraising disclosure system where donors must provide their name, address, occupation and employer, it's harder to track the sources of donations in Ontario as much of that information is not available.
"Unfortunately, we don't have a good enough disclosure system to catch that," he said.
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