Andrew Coyne: Cozy dinners with donors just ‘part of the democratic process,’ Wynne says

The premier of Ontario has taken an important stand on the issue of unnamed donors paying thousands of dollars for private meetings with her and her staff. She’s in favour of it.

Another leader caught selling preferential access to the highest bidder might have folded under pressure and abandoned the practice. But there’s a principle at stake here, and is drawing a line in the sand. The principle? A little thing called democracy.

“It’s part of the democratic process,” she said, of the $6,000-a-head cocktail reception and three-course dinner at Toronto’s Four Seasons Hotel scheduled for this Thursday. Organized by a major lobbying firm, it is advertised as a “small event with a limited number of tickets,” allowing for intimate “one-on-one conversations” with the premier, Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli and senior staff. A similar event last month charged $5,000 to speak to Chiarelli and the premier’s chief of staff, Andrew Bevan.

Well, what could be more democratic than that? Are we to confine our notion of democracy to the collective choices of millions of citizens, each having the same vote and the same say in how we are governed? That might meet some formalistic definition of democratic equality. But what about people with greater, shall we say, needs?

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Whether the government subsidizes wind power may not matter much to you, but it matters a great deal to someone in, say, the wind power industry. Adjusting for the difference in stakes, the $6,000 an executive splashes out to bend the premier’s ear at a private reception and dinner is worth about the same as a single vote to the average person. (Math available on request.)

Besides, there is also the important principle that the Liberals need the money. As the premier explained, “the money to run a party has to come from somewhere.” Sure, some of it might come from small individual donations by citizens seeking only to advance the ideals for which a party stands. And some of it might come from secret $6,000 cocktail receptions with the premier hosted by lobbyists for industries under government regulation. Deux poids, deux mesures.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking the executives paying thousands of dollars to chat with the premier on the down-low are hoping to exert some kind of pull. You’re thinking the combination of large donations to the party and close proximity — or more precisely, large donations to the party in exchange for close proximity — looks like some kind of sordid pay-to-play scheme.

Well shame on you. The truth is the premier is a charming and intelligent dinner companion. Minister Chiarelli, it is well-known, is a laugh riot: I mean if you only heard some of his stories. Chief of staff Bevan is a noted raconteur, flâneur, and lover of books. Who wouldn’t be willing to spill six grand at the end of a long day to spend a few relaxing hours in their company? Don’t think of it as influence peddling. Think of it more as a kind of high-end escort service.

It’s not as if the premier only speaks to people who pay thousands of dollars for the privilege. Again, I’m quoting her here: “People have access to me all the time, whether I’m walking down the street or whether I’m in a meeting room.” So we’re clear: if you have something to say to the premier, an issue you want to discuss or an environmental regulation you want set aside, you have only to stop her while she is walking down the street — well, maybe don’t stop her, she’s pretty busy, but sidle up alongside her and make your case. And to think you might have blown $6,000!

But I’ve saved the best for last — the clincher, the pivotal defence of the premier’s actions, sanctioned by centuries of law, philosophy and religious teaching: Everybody does it. “We follow the rules,” she said, “that all the parties follow.” And even the ones they don’t: just last week, the Liberals were demanding an investigation of the opposition Conservatives for promising donors who pledge at least $5,000 a chance to meet with their caucus and new leader, Patrick Brown.

Which is obviously much, much worse. I cite as authority the premier’s spokeswoman, as paraphrased in the Globe and Mail (from whom all of these quotations are lifted — hey, everybody does it!): “Ms. Beaudry said the fundraisers with Ms. Wynne, Mr. Chiarelli and Mr. Bevan are different from Mr. Brown’s because they are taking place at private hotels rather than at Queen’s Park.”

This is key. Ontario may have no ban on corporate and union donations, as the federal government has, or even any effective limit. It may allow unions to spend millions of dollars during election campaigns on behalf of their favourite parties. And it may allow well-heeled individuals to pay thousands of dollars for private sessions with senior government officials, with no record kept of where or with whom the exchange took place.

But it does insist they do so discreetly, over cozy dinners at luxury hotels. It’s right there in the regulations: outcalls only.

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