Ontario is “open for business,” Premier Doug Ford told a Progressive Conservative fundraising dinner Wednesday that was closed to anyone who did not pay $1,250 to attend.
Speaking to 3,200 well-heeled supporters at an event from which the media were banned after the Star revealed the Tories enlisted lobbyists to sell tickets, Ford touted his government’s accomplishments.
“We promised we would make Ontario open for business and open for jobs. Promise made, promise kept,” he said, pointing to the 41,000 full-time jobs created in the province last month, extending an era of near-record low unemployment that dates back to former premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals in 2017.
But the premier emphasized Wednesday night at the Toronto Congress Centre that difficult decisions loom as the Tories tackle a $13.5-billion budget deficit.
“We continue to fight hard for Ontario workers and Ontario jobs, for the hard working people in private-sector unions. Everything the government of Ontario does is put at risk when you do what the Liberals did and let deficits spiral out of control,” he said in a speech that was live-streamed on the Progressive Conservative Party’s website.
Ford noted the event was sold out, suggesting the party could have taken in as much as $4 million before expenses.
“This is the largest fundraiser in Canadian history,” the premier boasted.
Because of the large crowd, the snowstorm and some protesters outside, attendees were slow entering the sprawling Etobicoke venue, which delayed Ford’s speech by about an hour.
At Queen’s Park earlier in the day, he defended the closed-door dinner and emphasized he also does events that ordinary Ontarians can afford to attend.
“I’m going up to Muskoka on Friday for a $25 spaghetti dinner to talk to the real people. I encourage everyone to come out Friday to listen to the great things that this government has done for the common folk,” Ford said in the legislature.
But Green Leader Mike Schreiner said those folksy fundraisers aren’t the problem.
“We haven’t heard any reports that the premier is pressing corporate lobbyists to sell $25 tickets to his spaghetti dinners,” said Schreiner.
Last Thursday, the Star disclosed that the Tories asked lobbyists to help sell tickets because campaign finance reforms that banned corporate and union contributions have made it a challenge to fill tables.
“It’s potentially doing an end run around the ban on corporate donations,” Schreiner said.
While premiers’ major fundraisers have traditionally been open to the media, the party announced Tuesday that the event would be closed.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said that is becoming a theme for Ford’s administration.
“It says that the government is elected for only special interests,” said Horwath.
“We know that this government, particularly, does a lot of their business behind closed doors in secret where nobody knows what they’re doing and what they’re cooking up.”
Government house leader Todd Smith said prohibiting reporters was “a decision made by the party.”
But Tory sources, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal PC matters, insisted the edict came from Ford’s office.
Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie
Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1