Cash-for-access fundraisers undermine democracy and put Canada’s political inequality on display. The rich and powerful pay to advance their interests behind closed doors, while the rest of us stand outside. They let the party in power sell access — to the prime minister, cabinet ministers, senior officials — in a way that entrenches its political dominance.
And they are inherently wrong, by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s own standards, and reinforce the view that politicians owe their allegiance to special interests, not citizens.
First, consider the amount of money the Liberals are raising. Trudeau has said the cap on donations — $1,525 this year to a party, plus the same amount to one riding association — means no one can really buy influence.
But he had reportedly held 16 such fundraisers by the end of October. The Tyee has reported on two dinners in private homes — one in Toronto, one in Vancouver — attended by a combined 120 people. Some might have not been paying guests, but if 90 per cent were, the haul from those two nights would be about $165,000. Trudeau’s cash-for-access events to the end of October could easily have pulled in $1.3 million. Cabinet ministers and officials had held more than 70 similar fundraisers by the end of October.
Second, consider the Liberals’ struggle to justify the fundraisers. Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould defended a $500-a-person fundraiser in the Toronto offices of high-powered international law firm Torys LLP by saying she was there as an MP, not attorney general. You have to be desperate to say something that ludicrous, based on the belief Bay Street lawyers would pay to meet a B.C. backbencher.
Last month, Liberal Party national director Christina Topp tried an equally absurd defence. “Fundraising events are partisan functions where we do not discuss government business,” she wrote in a letter to cabinet ministers. Anyone who wishes to discuss policy at a fundraiser is “immediately redirected to instead make an appointment with the relevant office.”
It’s hard to imagine a corporate executive who had paid $1,525 to meet the prime minister being content with a chat about the Gilmore Girls’ return on Netflix.
Rightly, as it turns out. Trudeau confirmed this month that donors do talk about government business and lobby him to advance their own interests at the fundraisers.
Third, look at the law, and the Liberals’ own ethical guidelines. The Conflict of Interest Act says elected politicians shouldn’t give preferential treatment based on who people are, and it seems like special access for party donors would count.
And it adds that “No public office holder shall personally solicit funds from any person or organization if it would place the public office holder in a conflict of interest.” Trudeau isn’t directly soliciting money, but he’s the reason people are paying.
Trudeau also set clear Open and Accountable Government rules after taking office.
“There should be no preferential access to government, or appearance of preferential access, accorded to individuals or organizations because they have made financial contributions to politicians and political parties,” they say.
And that is exactly what is happening.
Fourth, think about the secrecy. You can find out who contributes to federal political parties. But the fundraisers themselves are secret. There is no disclosure of who paid to meet the prime minister, where, when, who the host was. The Tyee’s Jeremy Nuttall broke the story of a private Trudeau fundraiser at the Toronto home of businessman Benson Wong. He also revealed that the paying guests included a businessman who hoped to sell $1 billion worth of canola oil to China — at a time the Canadian government and the Chinese government were locked in a trade dispute over canola exports.
Other journalists have reported on some fundraisers. But most are still secret. The public doesn’t know who is paying for access to Trudeau and cabinet ministers, or what they’re talking about behind closed doors.
Fifth, think about the people paying to spend time with the prime minister or a cabinet minister. What do they expect to get for their $1,525? A glass of wine, some snacks and a photo with Trudeau to show their friends? Or a chance to be recognized as a donor in hopes of future favours, or an opportunity to advance a special interest? They could, after all, just write a cheque to the Liberal Party. They must expect something more from the fundraisers.
That doesn’t even have to mean special consideration from the government. The businessman behind the canola oil deal is also involved in development and immigration services aimed at the Chinese market. His company quickly shared a photo of him and Trudeau on its WeChat channel. The celebrity endorsement came at a bargain price.
And sixth, think about the people who decide not to pay. People like Sylvie Leduc. She got an invitation to $1,500 Trudeau fundraiser, but decided the cost was too high, even though she had been a Liberal volunteer and her IT startup had a proposal before the federal government.
The proposal was rejected. And she wonders if it would have been smarter to pay up. “Now in retrospect maybe I should have taken the easy route and just gone to the cocktail and mingle and be nice and pretty and I wouldn’t be sitting here where I am now three or four months later,” Leduc told The Globe and Mail.
There is a coercive element to these fundraisers. Say no, while your business competitors pay up, and you wonder what the long-term cost will be.
As there is an elitist, exclusionary element. Powerful corporate lawyers bought time with Wilson-Raybould to advance their interests. Sex workers hoping to convince the government to repeal a Harper-era law that makes their work more dangerous, for example, can’t afford the price of admission.
Trudeau, so far, has decided people don’t care about the issue.
We should. Special access to politicians shouldn’t be for sale, while those who can’t pay wait outside. The party in power shouldn’t be able to command donations in return for time with the prime minister or cabinet ministers.
Trudeau’s fundraising scheme perpetuates the justified perception that there is a club — the people who give money, organize fundraisers, have special access.
And you are not part of it.
It’s worth noting the situation is far worse in British Columbia. The province has no limits on political donations from unions, corporations or foreign interests. Premier Christy Clark commands up to $20,000 for a meeting with donors, and doesn’t reveal who paid for access.
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