Amid an unprecedented health-care system crisis and despite his recent absences from question period, Premier Doug Ford is still holding $1,000-per-person fundraising sessions.
With intensive care units at crisis levels, the province in a state of emergency, Ontarians locked down with stay-at-home orders, and new COVID-19 cases regularly setting records, the premier was nowhere to be seen in question period on Tuesday or Monday. Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca called out his absence as "being in witness protection" since the disastrous rollout of the government's latest pandemic response last Friday, slamming him for not being present at a critical time.
While Health Minister Christine Elliott insisted the premier was "very busy" focusing his attention on procuring additional vaccines from other countries "virtually full-time," on Thursday there is one scheduled event where his attention will be elsewhere: a Zoom fundraiser where people will pay $1,000 a head to see him online and chat about the pandemic.
"Join for a discussion on the issues facing our province during these challenging times and what our government is doing to help," the event description states. Ministers Steve Clark and Lisa Thompson will appear alongside the premier.
The premier is scheduled to hold a $1,000 Zoom fundraiser for the PC Party Thursday evening amidst Ontario's unprecedented health crisis.
— David Hains (@DavidHains) April 20, 2021
It's not the only time the premier is setting aside time for big-money Zoom fundraising these days. Last Thursday, a day that was largely consumed by a cabinet meeting that resulted in a ban on playgrounds and legalized carding and a day on which there was a record 4,736 new cases of COVID-19 and 29 people died, the premier held another big-ticket fundraiser in the evening.
"Please join us as we celebrate the holy month of Ramadan with PC Party Leader Doug Ford," the notice said. General tickets were $400, but for $1,000 Zoom attendees could receive a "recognition scroll" signed by Ford. The event was first noted by Queen's Park Today.
The premier also held a $1,650 Zoom fundraiser alongside Labour Minister Monte McNaughton last Tuesday to benefit the PC Ontario Fund, two days before cabinet deliberations on public health restrictions for workplaces began.
Although PC political fortunes have declined as third-wave cases have risen, fundraising has been a rare bright spot for the governing party in the past couple of months. The party led the way in political fundraising in the first quarter of 2021, raising at least $1.75 million since the start of the year. That total only counts contributions that are greater than $100. The PC total represents about twice as much as the NDP, Liberals and Greens combined.
In the lead-up to the 2022 election, the PCs have leaned into this advantage and doubled donation limits to parties, riding associations and candidates in Bill 254, which received royal assent Monday. The donation limits were $1,222 when the PCs took power, and are now $3,300, twice the federal limit after it has been raised two times. In Ontario, there is no requirement for the attendees of fundraisers to be disclosed, as there is at the federal level. The legislation to increase contribution limits is retroactive to Jan. 1 of this year and also reduces the amount of public notice that needs to be given for these fundraisers.
In an emailed statement, the PC Party defended fundraising amid a public health crisis. "The Ontario PC Party was the only political party in Ontario to suspend all fundraising efforts for six months in 2020 – not just in-person events, but also digital, phone and mailing. It’s important to note that the Ontario Liberals and NDP have continued to fundraise throughout the course of the pandemic – including an OLP fundraising event taking place tonight," said spokesperson Christina Wramhed.
Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca is also scheduled to attend a Zoom-based fundraiser on Tuesday evening, with ticket prices ranging from free to $50, according to his party's website.
Opposition parties were irate at the fundraising efforts amid the crisis, with Del Duca, informed of the activity by QP Briefing, calling it "farcical" and characterizing it as tone-deaf and out of step with real priorities.
The Liberals then used a query in question period to address the issue. "We're in a crisis in Ontario," Liberal health critic John Fraser said. "While ICU admissions continue to rise, the premier's priority this Thursday night is a $1,000-a-ticket fundraiser in the middle of a third wave. What planet is that OK on?"
PC House Leader Paul Calandra, answering in the premier's absence, evaded the question and said the government has made necessary investments in the health-care system.
NDP leader Andrea Horwath charged that it was illustrative of a premier who isn't focused on what matters as Ontarians languish in ICU wards. "To be more concerned with filling the coffers of his party than saving the lives of Ontarians, I mean it's just horrifying that he would have such upside-down priorities."
Green Leader Mike Schreiner saw it the same way. "I think it's disgusting that the premier is holding fundraisers when he should be focused on combating COVID. People are literally dying and they need the government to step up," he said, citing measures to support small businesses, further public health measures and workplace protections as examples of what it could be doing. "Instead, the premier is focused on fundraising? It's just unbelievable."