06/01/2017 10:34 EDT

Liberals Introduce Legislation To End 'Secrecy' Surrounding So-Called Cash-For-Access Fundraisers

The bill would still allow fundraisers to be held in private homes.

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

OTTAWA — The federal Liberals introduced legislation Wednesday aimed at putting an end to the secrecy surrounding exclusive fundraisers featuring the prime minister, cabinet ministers, party leaders and leadership contenders.

But while such fundraisers would be more transparent, opposition critics said the bill doesn't fix the problem of wealthy donors paying for preferential access to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his ministers.

Indeed, the bill does not go as far as rules adopted earlier this year by the Liberal party after being roasted for months last fall for holding exclusive fundraisers in private homes, where wealthy individuals paid up to the maximum donation of $1,550 to rub shoulders with the prime minister or one of his ministers.

"You can still buy access to the prime minister and his cabinet ministers if you have the money to pay."

— NDP MP Nathan Cullen

Whereas the party now requires events featuring Trudeau or a cabinet minister to be held in publicly accessible spaces and open to the media, the bill would still allow fundraisers to be held in private homes and does not require that reporters be allowed to cover the event.

The bill would require that such events, where the price of admission is a $200 donation or more, be advertised at least five days in advance, including the time and location of the fundraiser and contact information for anyone interested in attending.

However, it's not clear how that would be of value to a member of the public who wanted to attend an event in a private home, where space would be strictly limited.

The bill also falls short of Trudeau's instructions to Karina Gould when she was sworn in as democratic institutions minister in January. In her mandate letter, Trudeau instructed Gould to devise a law that would make fundraisers involving ministers, party leaders and leadership candidates more transparent, including requiring them to be conducted "in publicly available spaces."

The bill would require political parties to report to Elections Canada within 30 days the names and addresses of those who attend such events, along with the amount of money they contributed.

It would not ban lobbyists from attending such fundraisers, although any lobbyist who used an event to lobby the prime minister or a minister would be required, under existing provisions of the Lobbying Act, to report that activity.

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The proposed rules would apply not just to cabinet members but to fundraisers featuring leaders of opposition parties with at least one seat in the House of Commons, as well as to leadership contenders of all parties represented in the Commons.

"We believe it is important to make our already strong and robust system of political financing even more open and transparent so that Canadians can continue to have confidence in our democratic institutions," Gould said after introducing the bill in the Commons.

She said the bill would remove the "secrecy" surrounding some fundraising events while preserving the ability of political parties to raise money.

"This is an important thing because political parties do require funds to operate and when Canadians go to a fundraiser for a political party, they're doing it because they're expressing themselves democratically."

Extending rules to opposition 'idiotic': Cullen

Gould asserted that cabinet decisions are not influenced by donations.

NDP democratic reform critic Nathan Cullen said the bill does nothing to fix the fundamental problem of wealthy donors getting preferential access to Trudeau and his ministers.

"Cash for access will continue," Cullen said. "You can still buy access to the prime minister and his cabinet ministers if you have the money to pay."

Extending the rules to opposition parties, who don't influence government policy, is "idiotic," he added.

Moreover, Cullen said the timing of the bill — introduced just moments after all but two Liberal backbenchers voted against his motion in support of a proportional voting system — is a smokescreen to distract from the fact that the ruling party has reneged on Trudeau's promise of electoral reform.

Only two Liberal MPs, Toronto's Nathaniel Erskine-Smith (R) and Prince Edward Island's Sean Casey, voted for a motion calling on the government to support a report from an all-party committee on electoral reform. (Photo: CP/Liberal Party of Canada)

The motion called on MPs to support last December's majority report of an all-party committee on electoral reform, which called for the government to devise a system of proportional representation and seek Canadians' approval for it through a national referendum.

All but two Liberals — Toronto's Nathaniel Erskine-Smith and Prince Edward Island's Sean Casey — voted against the motion, even though they campaigned in 2015 on Trudeau's promise that it would be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.

Late last year, in the midst of controversy over so-called cash-for-access fundraisers, Trudeau said he was willing to consider options for resolving the problem, including reducing the donation limit and reinstating the per-vote subsidy for political parties, thereby reducing their need to raise large sums of money.

However, insiders said the government rejected those options in favour of simply requiring more transparency.