Complaints and pressure on two controversies mount as PCs try to stay quiet

Complaints and pressure on two controversies mount as PCs try to stay quiet

The Progressive Conservative government is facing significant political pressure on multiple controversies that could shape the debate when the house resumes sitting in just over three weeks.

Despite a national federal election in which the governing PCs wanted to remain on the sidelines, there has been considerable focus on the party for two controversies this week: the vaccination status of MPPs that saw Deputy Speaker Rick Nicholls booted from the party, and a self-made scandal over fundraising solicitations from the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario (PCPO) that were disguised as fake invoices.

In both instances the PCs tried to stay tight-lipped on the controversies, but when the pressure became too significant that strategy went out the window. In the case of Nicholls' ouster, that was kicked off by reporting by QP Briefing, which collected information on the vaccination status of as many MPPs as possible. PC sources told QP Briefing the premier's office directed MPPs not to respond to media requests at the time in an effort to stymie the issue. And in the fake invoices scandal, the PCPO did not issue a statement until the third day of media requests, issuing an apology but at the same time claiming that the misleading mailers were not intended to deceive donors.

The opposition, sensing the possibility of going into the fall session before an election year facing an embattled government, tried to keep up the pressure.

Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said that, if Elections Ontario finds that the deceptive mailers sent by the PCPO are out of its purview, that Queen's Park should amend the Elections Act to ensure that such tactics cannot be used by any political party. "If Elections Ontario says the Act doesn't cover this, then we need to update the Act and make sure that it does."

That call to action comes on top of a request for investigation the Ontario Liberal Party filed with the Ontario Provincial Police earlier this week.

The Liberals also had some fun with the scandal, sending a solicitation to supporters on Thursday counterprogramming against the PC headache. "We don't need to trick you," said a letter from OLP President Brian Johns to a supporter. "You know that winning the battle for what kind of Ontario we want requires resources."

The NDP took an additional avenue, forwarding on Friday a package of documents to the RCMP to investigate the matter. That includes outlining the concern that, contrary to Canada Post Corporations Act rules that govern solicitations, the letter dressed up as an invoice does not contain the accompanying disclaimer required by law.

NDP MPP Peggy Sattler said the party also supports giving the Elections Act more teeth. "The NDP has long supported amendments to toughen up the Elections Act — from cracking down on the previous Liberal government’s cash-for-access schemes to making the source of donations transparent."

Responsive Marketing Group, the PC-aligned company that distributed the letters and was involved in the 2011 Robocalls Scandal, has not responded to multiple QP Briefing requests for comment over the past three days. The PCPO also declined to answer specific questions about who approved the solicitations, whether there will be any consequences, whether any money that gets donated will be refunded, or what actions they will take to ensure this doesn't happen again. Instead, continuing to stonewall on the specifics, the party referred to its statement issued yesterday, which did not answer these details.

Meanwhile, the NDP called for the government to strip independent MPP Nicholls of his title as deputy speaker and contacted House Leader Paul Calandra to do so. The three-term unvaccinated MPP was ousted by the PC caucus Thursday following reporting by QP Briefing. But the house leader's office did not respond to a media request about whether it supports stripping Nicholls of his title, or on whether the government would support legislation that would expand the authority of Elections Ontario to prevent future fake invoicing scandals.

The fall session could see a strong focus on ethics, accountability and standards. It's been a theme of the NDP in recent months, which could be amplified heading into the election cycle. And the Office of the Integrity Commissioner filed recommendations in June for more expansive regulations around lobbying and transparency at Queen's Park, which will be discussed at committee beginning in September, providing a platform for the theme to stay alive.

David Hains

QP Briefing Reporter

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