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Federal Politics

Conservatives Missing the Boat with Fixation on Liberal Fundraising

Cash for access question important, but here are four other issues the Tories could be raising.

Jeremy Nuttall 5 Nov

Jeremy J. Nuttall is The Tyee's Parliament Hill reporter in Ottawa. Find his previous stories here.

The official opposition Conservatives have spent the last week, and much of the last month, focused on one issue: the Liberals’ so-called “cash for access” fundraisers.

Liberal cabinet ministers have been holding fundraising events with hefty entrance fees, and the opposition alleges the party is effectively selling access to decision-makers to people who can pay. The Conservatives say that by the time the year ends, the Liberals will have held 100 such fundraisers.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau argues a federal contribution limit of $1,500 ensures that no individual is able to buy actual influence with elected officials.

On Thursday, the Conservatives used an Opposition Day motion to force a debate on the idea of giving the Ethics Commissioner the power to enforce the Prime directives on fundraising events.

The debate and Question Period focused on the issue for much of Thursday afternoon. The phrase “cash for access” was repeated 37 times — and that’s not including variations on the phrase. MPs managed to use the number $1,500 a total of 77 times Thursday.

While cash for access deserves attention, the Conservatives’ continued use of Question Period to hammer the same topic means they’re letting other issues fall by the wayside.

We took a look at some other issues that, while they may be mentioned in the House, could be raised more effectively and frequently by the Official Opposition.

1. CSIS and secret data collection, police spying on journalists

On Thursday afternoon, while MPs debated fundraisers yet again, a Federal Court ruled the Canadian Security Intelligence Service has been illegally collecting metadata on Canadians — phone numbers, emails and other information — over the last decade.

The ruling came after revelations earlier in the week that Quebec police had spied on six reporters in the province, raising questions about government oversight of law enforcement spying on citizens

On Friday afternoon Conservative public safety critic Tony Clement sent a letter to Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, asking if there would be an investigation into the Quebec police spying and the possibilities of other cases, including by federal agencies.

Trudeau has insisted federal authorities are not spying on reporters in Canada.

Both issues deserve the attention of Parliament, argued privacy advocate OpenMedia in a statement this week. The fact that CSIS could collect and store data on Canadians for at least a decade, and fail to disclose the practice to the courts as required by law, shows the need for new accountability measures, it said.

“This ruling clearly shows that our current accountability mechanisms for CSIS are woefully insufficient,” communications manager David Christopher said.

“The fact that CSIS could go 10 years retaining large quantities of our sensitive private information, yet we’re only finding out about this now — and only as a result of a court judgment — is hugely concerning.”

2. Marine protection for B.C.

As the slow and inadequate response to fuel spilled from a sunken tug near Bella Bella raised serious concerns about marine safety on B.C.’s coast, the Conservatives did press the government for change.

The Nathan E. Stewart ran aground Oct. 13 and began leaking diesel fuel into the fragile ocean habitat in the area. The tug is still aground and partly submerged, and clean up efforts have been slow and plagued by problems.

On Thursday — three weeks after the disaster — the Conservatives released a statement from transport, fisheries and natural resources critics pressing Ottawa to improve marine incident response capability for the coast.

“As marine traffic on Canada’s West Coast continues to grow, we need the infrastructure to go along with it,” said natural resource critic Mark Strahl. “Heavy rescue tugboat capacity that can deal quickly with emergencies to protect our sensitive marine environment and ensure we can get our goods to global markets safely is needed.”

Kai Nagata of the Dogwood Initiative commended the Conservatives for pressuring the government, though he noted the letter downplayed the need for a tanker ban on the north coast. “It’s great to see the Conservatives jump in on this,” he said of the call for tugboat rescue improvements.

But the Conservatives should keep at it, he added. And he noted that more pressure from the opposition party would be well received by Conservative voters in B.C. who are concerned about the environment.

3. Ties to China

Since forming government, the Liberals have made it clear they want closer ties to China and have not been bashful in pursuing warmer relations with that country’s rulers.

From meetings with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to exploratory talks on trade deals and extradition treaties, Ottawa has been relentlessly pursuing its China ambitions.

Two of Trudeau’s Senate appointments this year, Yuen Pau Woo and Peter Harder, both have backgrounds as leaders of business groups lobbying for closer ties with the current Chinese government.

Watchdog Amnesty International says that while the Liberal government has been courting China, human rights abuses have become worse, including the rounding up of human rights lawyers and other dissidents.

“Five women’s rights activists were detained for planning to mark International Women’s Day with a campaign against sexual harassment,” the organization noted in its 2015/16 report on the country.

Conservative foreign affairs critic Peter Kent has expressed some concern over Ottawa’s increasingly cozy relationship with Beijing.

But while polls have shown Canadians are concerned about human rights in China and Trudeau’s push for close relations with Beijing, the Conservatives have not focused on the issue enough.

More of a push could help ensure hopes of trade and investment don’t trump the concerns of Canadians when it comes to relations with Beijing.

4. “Private meetings”

Trudeau’s itinerary and daily schedule is regularly sent to journalists in the Parliamentary Press Gallery, revealing where he is going and whom he is seeing.

But on a regular basis, the schedule includes times slots devoted to “private meetings.” Often the private meetings are the only activity listed. The topics and participants aren’t revealed.

The practice was raised by Maclean’s in January, though it was less common then since “private meetings” had only appeared on the schedule a couple of days in a row.

“Consulting on a specific issue needs to remain private for different reasons,” Trudeau’s press secretary Andrée-Lyne Hallé said at the time. “Some meetings with large groups will be disclosed.”

A quick count of The Tyee’s Parliament Hill inbox shows almost 40 private meetings were listed on the Prime Minister’s daily schedule since January.

582px version of PHOTO1-Trudeau-Meetings.jpg
A not-so-revealing glimpse at Prime Minister Trudeau’s recent itinerary.

Who is Trudeau talking to? And why can’t we know?

Why aren’t the Conservatives asking those questions of a government that claims a commitment to transparency and accountability?  [Tyee]

Read more: Federal Politics

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