Critics blast proposed changes to cash-for-access rules
Published Friday, January 27, 2017 8:46AM EST Last Updated Friday, January 27, 2017 3:53PM EST
Proposed changes to rules governing private cash-for-access fundraisers, where attendees are charged big money to rub shoulders with ministers, are “ridiculous,” a “charade” and a “cynical game,” say critics.
The Prime Minister’s Office has asked newly minted Minister for Democratic Institutions Karina Gould to draft rules that will apply to cabinet ministers, as well as party leaders and leadership candidates.
The legislation will not ban the cash-for-access fundraisers that see donors pay as much as $1,500 to schmooze with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau or one of his cabinet ministers away from the public spotlight.
But new rules are expected to require that the fundraisers be held in publicly available spaces (not homes or private clubs), advertised in advance and that a report be released "in a timely manner" to reveal details of the event after it’s held.
Other measures might follow after talks with opposition parties, but the government was coy about what those could be, the timing of the legislation, and how much detail Canadians will receive in public reports.
"We believe in providing Canadians with more open, transparent information about political fundraising that involves cabinet ministers, party leaders and leadership candidates. We will bring forward a plan to do just that," Gould said in a statement.
"I'm looking forward to working with parliamentarians to make political fundraising more open and accountable."
The move is aimed at neutralizing controversy over Trudeau’s presence at a cash-for-access event at the home of a wealthy Torontonian last fall that put him under fierce scrutiny from opposition parties. He is also feeling the heat after accepting lodging and a helicopter ride from the Aga Khan while on a recent vacation. That is being investigated by the federal ethics commissioner because the Aga Khan’s charitable organization receives funding from Ottawa.
Conservative interim leader Rona Ambrose called the proposed rules “ridiculous.”
“We don’t need a new law. What we need is for Justin Trudeau to respect the law that’s in place. That’s common sense,” she said Friday, through a translator at the end of a three-day Conservative strategy meeting in Quebec City.
She said cash-for-access events were prohibited a decade ago.
“We see the return of a Liberal government and we see cash-for-access events happening again. We see government selling influence just like we saw 10 years ago with the Liberal government and the sponsorship scandal.”
It doesn’t matter where an event is held, it’s about selling access to the “most powerful person in Canada” and charging to discuss government business, said Ambrose.
“It’s very simple: Just stop doing it.”
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said in a statement Friday that the government is not poised to actually ban "selling access to ministers," which he says is the overarching problem with the fundraisers.
He also questioned whether the Liberals are admitting wrongdoing and whether they would return any of the money raised in the past from the private fundraisers: "Or is this just what it looks like, a cynical game to distract from Liberals helping themselves?"
Trudeau had previously defended the cash-for-access fundraisers, arguing that federal political financing rules, including disclosure requirements and strict caps on donations, prevent any appearance of conflict of interest.
While critics say the private events undermine government transparency and accountability, it’s not clear whether they violate existing political fundraising or ethics rules. The federal ethics commissioner has repeatedly said fundraising provisions in the ethics law need to be more stringent when it comes to cabinet ministers and parliamentary secretaries.
The fundraisers also appeared to contradict Trudeau's own guidelines for ethical government conduct, which stipulate that "there should be no preferential access or appearance of preferential access" in exchange for political donations.
“He broke his own rules and now he’s bringing in legislation to prevent himself from breaking his own rules again,” Conservative leadership contender Lisa Raitt said outside the caucus meeting.
“It’s about the fact he broke the rules. He broke the rules. So he’s going to try to create new rules so that we stop asking about the rules he’s broken.”
Democracy Watch called the proposed legislation “a charade that won’t stop cash for access or the unethical influence of big money donations.”
The advocacy group leads a Money in Politics coalition of 50 groups representing 3.5 million Canadians. It has called on federal political parties to make numerous changes, including: lowering the individual political donation limit from $3,100 to $100 annually; limiting a candidate’s donation to her or her campaign to $100; and limiting public funding of parties and candidates.
“Any political party that refuses to support these changes is essentially admitting they are up for sale and that they approve of the unethical and undemocratic best-government-money-can-buy approach to politics,” said Democracy Watch co-founder Duff Conacher.
“The only way to stop the unethical and undemocratic influence of big money in federal politics is to stop big money donations.”
With files from The Canadian Press