Editor's note: This article originally appeared on The Trillium, a new Village Media website devoted exclusively to covering provincial politics at Queen’s Park. The following story has been updated from its original version.
Ontario's NDP and Opposition leader tabled a stag-and-doe-inspired bill on Monday to tweak the law setting MPPs' conflict-of-interest rules so that the appearance of a conflict counts as a violation when it comes to accepting gifts.
Marit Stiles' bill would change the Members' Integrity Act to say that MPPs shall not accept gifts "that might reasonably be seen to have been given in connection, directly or indirectly" with their job's duties.
The act currently only says MPPs shouldn't accept gifts that are "connected directly or indirectly" to their job's duties.
Stiles said the $150-a-ticket stag-and-doe that Premier Doug Ford hosted ahead of his daughter's wedding, which lobbyists and developers were invited to and attended, along with past Integrity Commissioner of Ontario recommendations inspired her newly introduced Strengthening Members' Integrity Act.
"We're going to add a little bit more teeth to the Members' Integrity Act," Stiles said of her bill. "I want to make sure that Ontarians get greater accountability from their government."
The law changes proposed in Stiles' new bill are contained within a single page. The NDP leader's legislation would not broaden the Members' Integrity Act to cover MPPs' adult children, or wider family, into the act — which is one of the act's aspects that Commissioner J. David Wake pointed to in a March 16 report justifying his earlier opinion finding that Ford's daughter's wedding festivities hadn't broken the law.
Parts of the Members' Integrity Act applying to MPPs' families only include their spouses and minor children.
Speaking to The Trillium about Stiles' bill, Ian Stedman, a staff member of the Office of the Integrity Commissioner from 2011 to 2014, said it likely wouldn't affect how the commissioner would treat a new controversy similar to the stag-and-doe.
Stedman, now an assistant professor at York University's School of Public Policy and Administration, said "the same workaround (would continue) to exist" even if Stiles' bill were to become law.
Interim Liberal leader John Fraser said on Monday that he'd prefer to see the definition of "family" broadened in the Members' Integrity Act.
"When we take a look at the fundraiser the premier had at his house for his daughter's wedding, I think inviting people there who are doing business with government, that's a conflict; it's clearly a conflict," Fraser said.
Despite the absence of those changes, Fraser said he "welcomes" the proposed bill from Stiles.
An impact that Stedman said Stiles' legislation could have, for example, would be: if MPPs recused themselves from decisions on certain topics — setting up a conflict-of-interest screen — that would preclude them from accepting gifts related to the same topic, given the perception of a conflict that could be suggested. Because of this, the NDP leader's bill would result in positive change, said Stedman, who also acknowledged the long odds it faces to pass.
The governing Progressive Conservatives control almost two-thirds of the seats in the Ontario legislature. No bill without a PC sponsor has passed or shown likelihood of passing in the 10-and-a-half months since the Ford government's re-election.
Stiles said she actually opted against proposing broader changes to the Members' Integrity Act in the hope that it could win the government's support.
"I want this government to acknowledge what Ontarians are telling me — which is that this (the Aug. 11 stag-and-doe) smells bad," she said. "There is the appearance of a conflict of interest, and that alone should be the bar for the Members' Integrity Act."
The work of Ontario's integrity commissioner, and the act dictating it, has been under the microscope at Queen's Park since reporting in early February brought to light details of the stag-and-doe party and the premier's daughter's Sept. 25 wedding that followed it, which multiple developers who've benefited from Ford government decisions attended.
After a reporter posed the premier's office questions about the events in late January, the premier's office contacted the commissioner for his opinion about them. Based on information the premier and his staff provided, like that Ford had no knowledge of gifts given to his daughter or son-in-law, and that government business was not discussed at either event, Wake found Ford hadn't violated the Members' Integrity Act.
In late February, Stiles requested the commissioner conduct a full investigation — known formally as an inquiry — into Ford's daughter's wedding festivities.
In an interim report on March 16, Wake wrote that he was delaying a decision on whether or not to launch this inquiry until after he finished a separate already-started investigation with "overlap" that was into the government's Greenbelt changes.
Wake also wrote at length in that same report about the limits to his powers under the Members' Integrity Act, including regarding the "appearance of a conflict(-of-interest)," which Wake said he previously recommended that the legislature clarify.
"But nothing was ever done," the commissioner added.
Stedman said he believes the Member’s Integrity Act should be expanded to cover perceived conflicts, and not only when it comes to accepting gifts.
“Most of our MPPs act in that way anyway,” he said. “Most of our MPPs are aware that perception is reality and they care about that. There's a mistake here and there, or there's an intentional ignoring of it here and there, but most of them know that and so it wouldn't really change life for most of them. But if you made that change, it would probably improve public trust in the institution and in the accountability mechanisms available.”
Another change he’d recommend is allowing the integrity commissioner to start investigations without requiring a complaint from an MPP, either of his volution or based on a tip from the public. The commissioner should also be required to report on the outcome of complaints, he said.
—With files from Jessica Smith Cross and Aidan Chamandy