OTTAWA — The Trudeau Liberals are trying to staunch ongoing questions about so-called "cash-for-access" fundraisers with promises of transparency that critics say don't go far enough, nor address the underlying concerns about the practice.
Days before Parliament is set to resume — with the opposition parties set to take aim at the prime minister over ethical questions that have dogged him for months — the Liberals promised to introduce legislation that would require greater public reporting about the political fundraisers.
The Liberals said Friday that they would introduce legislation to force cabinet ministers, party leaders and leadership candidates to publicly advertise the fundraisers in advance and release a report some time after the fact about details of the event.
The legislation would also require the events to take place in publicly available spaces, a move designed to address concerns about well-heeled donors bending the ears of cabinet ministers in private homes.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had previously defended the controversial practice. (Photo: Chris Wattie/Reuters)
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," newly minted Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould said in a statement.
"I'm looking forward to working with parliamentarians to make political fundraising more open and accountable."
Interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose called the move a "smoke screen" that wouldn't neutralize ongoing questions about the prime minister selling access and influence to deep-pocketed donors. She said the proposed law wouldn't address concerns about "stakeholder fundraising" where people who want something from the government can pay their way into a meeting with a minister.
"What I've seen from this new legislation, it's about the media is in the room, it's in a public place — that's not the issue. The issue is selling influence. It's asking people to pay to meet with government officials to discuss government business," Ambrose told reporters in Quebec City.
Practice undermines transparency: Critics
"That's the issue and for some reason he (Trudeau) hasn't seen a problem with that."
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said 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 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?"
Cash-for-access fundraisers see donors pay as much as $1,500 to rub shoulders with Trudeau or one of his cabinet ministers away from the public spotlight. Critics say the practice undermines government transparency and accountability. But it doesn't necessarily violate political fundraising or ethics rules as they are currently written.
Trudeau has defended the practice, arguing that federal political financing rules, including disclosure requirements and strict caps on donations, prevent any appearance of conflict of interest.
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.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said the government is not poised to actually ban "selling access to ministers," which he says is the overarching problem with the fundraisers. (Photo: Getty Images)
The proposed transparency rules, if adopted, don't go as far as the Liberals could in helping the public learn more about the fundraising events, including who was in attendance, said Christopher Cotton, director of the John Deutsch Institute for the Study of Economic Policy at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont. Nor do they get to the heart of concerns voters have with the influence of money in the political system, he said.
"If you're a lobbyist organizing a $1,500-a-plate fundraiser for example, you may have been only able to give $1,500 individually, but now the politician may see you as somebody who was able to bring together a number of people each giving $1,500," he said.
"That's the bigger worry that I have with these cash for access events. It isn't that those that attend get to meet the politicians, it's that those organizing it and those running these events end up contributing more in the aggregate to the campaigns than could be."
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.
The NDP plan to introduce a private member's bill next week when Parliament resumes to codify in law Trudeau's ethical guidelines, including giving the ethics commissioner the power to investigate cash-for-access events.