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Ford, cabinet ministers deflect criticism over 'cash-for-access' event

NDP Leader Marit Stiles said a PC minister raising $24k in political donations from stakeholders shows the Ford government has returned 'to the bad old days of Liberal cash-for-access culture'
Premier Doug Ford speaks during a press conference regarding housing development in the Greater Toronto Area at Toronto City Hall on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024.

After a couple of members of Doug Ford's cabinet dodged charges of hosting "cash-for-access" events, the premier came closest to addressing the criticism, returning to one of his favourite lines: "no one can influence our government."

Criticism on Thursday came from Ontario's official Opposition NDP after The Trillium reported that the Progressive Conservatives have fundraised $151,000 in political donations since 2018 from directors and executives of private schools that partnered with public colleges. Almost one-sixth of the total, $24,300, came from a single March 7, 2022 event featuring Colleges and Universities Minister Jill Dunlop that benefited her riding association.

The kind of schools the directors and executives are involved with — known as public college-private partnerships (PPPs) — were saved from extinction by the Ford government. After winning the 2018 election, the PCs reversed a decision by the previous Liberal government that would have ended the partnerships.

They've since "significantly expanded," the province's auditor general recently wrote in a report. PPPs have also grown increasingly reliant on international students whose tuition rates weren't included in a five-year freeze the Ford government put on those of domestic students in 2018.

Although it was Dunlop who took NDP Leader Marit Stiles' first couple of questions about The Trillium's reporting in Thursday's question period, the colleges minister avoided addressing any of the specifics, instead promoting the PC government's action in other areas.

As Stiles continued, Government House Leader Paul Calandra subbed in to respond when the NDP leader asked, "How can the premier defend a return to the bad old days of Liberal cash-for-access culture where policies are decided by how much you're willing to hand over to the governing party?"

Calandra, however, stuck to criticizing the NDP and previous Liberal government in his response.

After suffering through a scandal around hosting political fundraisers costing thousands to tens-of-thousands of dollars to attend, Ontario's Liberals changed provincial law in 2017 to only allow individuals — and no longer companies, unions or other groups — to make political donations, while also reducing the amounts that could be given in a single year.

Ford was also critical of both the Liberals' and NDP's fundraising practices earlier in his time as premier.

"The NDP were putting out cash-for access: Pay $800 to have the luxury and have a reward and meet the Leader of the Opposition," Ford said in the legislature on March 20, 2019. "That's $800, and that's unacceptable."

On Dec. 8, 2020, Ford said of the Liberals, "Everyone in this house remembers the time that they were selling access. Every single minister had their quota — $10,000 a table."

"Maybe that was part of the 17 minor changes (to the Greenbelt) to support their developer buddies," Ford said of the Liberals, while in the legislature. "'You buy the table; we’ll give you a little bit of the Greenbelt off.' That’s the real story."

Ford didn't respond to any of Stiles' questions about the PCs' fundraising on Thursday.

The premier also didn't specifically address Dunlop's March 2022 fundraiser when asked about it by The Trillium at a news conference later in the day. 

"We're pretty transparent — right across the board," Ford said after first talking about how his government intends to soon provide additional support for Ontario's colleges and universities.

"When it comes to any events, they're basically public. Anyone can come. It doesn't matter where they're from. But I can tell you one thing: no one can influence our government; no one can influence any minister at all," the premier added.

Later in his press conference, Ford called out Liberal Leader Bonnie Crombie for failing to indicate whether or not she supports a carbon tax when she was pressed by several reporters about it earlier in the week.

"When you step into the big leagues, and you want to be the premier of Ontario, you've got to answer these questions and (not) dodge and weave like she did the other day," Ford said of the recently elected Liberal leader. 


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