Justin Trudeau’s government was three weeks old when his office released ethics guidelines for cabinet ministers.
Trudeau was eager for everyone to notice.
“We will uphold the highest standards of integrity and impartiality both in our public and private affairs,” Trudeau said in the accompanying news release. “The documents we are releasing today provide guidance on how we must go about our responsibilities as ministers, and I encourage Canadians to read them and to hold us accountable for delivering these commitments.”
So why don’t we?
Let’s begin down here, under Section IV.1, Ministerial Conduct: cabinet ministers “have an obligation to perform their official duties and arrange their private affairs in a manner that will bear the closest public scrutiny. This obligation is not fully discharged merely by acting within the law.”
From there it’s a short hop to Annex B, Fundraising and Dealing With Lobbyists. “Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries must ensure that political fundraising activities or considerations do not affect, or appear to affect, the exercise of their official duties or the access of individuals or organizations to government.” Well, that can be a tough call, after all. With a government like this one, one that’s trying to do absolutely everything all at once, who can tell what affects the exercise of their duties? Perhaps there’s some simpler test.
Ah. Next paragraph: “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.”
So it would be a bad thing for people doing business with the government to be able to buy access to cabinet ministers by making large contributions to the Liberal party?
And yet it has become rather a common thing. From Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, who appeared at a fundraiser lawyers had paid $500 to attend, to Finance Minister Bill Morneau, who appears at lots of Liberal fundraisers with tickets costing from $500 to $1,500, it seems the surest way to meet a senior cabinet minister is to write a cheque to the Liberal Party of Canada.
Why has Trudeau not intervened? Perhaps because he has been setting the example for his colleagues. The Globe and Mail reports that Trudeau attended a $1,500-a-head party fundraiser in Toronto in May attended by senior figures in the Chinese-Canadian community.
The Liberal Party line is that government business was not addressed at the dinner. But the dinner wasn’t announced at the time. And nobody is telling us what was discussed.
So we’re just going to have to take their word on it.
There remains the nagging business of those Open and Accountable Government guidelines, which Trudeau was so eager for everyone to read a year ago. “Hold us accountable,” he said. “No … appearance of preferential access,” the guidelines said. “Merely acting within the law” isn’t enough, they said.
There’s a handy way to check whether there’s the appearance of preferential access. Have you given the Liberals $1,500 this year? Did you meet Trudeau in a great big Toronto house in May? If you answered “No” to both questions, you might just have found the appearance of preferential access. For other people.
In the House of Commons, Trudeau and the government House leader, Bardish Chagger, insist they’ve followed the rules. The referees are less sure. Mary Dawson, the conflict of interest and ethics commissioner, wants laws changed to restrict this pay-to-play access, which she calls “not very savoury.” Lobbying commissioner Karen Shepherd is investigating the fundraisers.
Why do the Liberals persist? Two reasons, I think. First, this government really does put a high value on meetings with the very “elites” that Conservative MP Kellie Leitch is trying to run against in her campaign for her party’s leadership. Trudeau spends part of his time bragging about discussing government business in personal meetings with plutocrats—at Davos, at this month’s BlackRock investors summit in Toronto—and part of his time denying he’s discussed government business in personal meetings with plutocrats, at these fundraisers. It must be a challenge to keep the two classes of meetings separate in his mind.
Second, the Liberals are haunted by the decade they spent taking a thumping at the hands of the Conservatives in quarterly fundraising tallies. The Conservatives are still formidable fundraisers, usually from donors who each give smaller amounts than does the average Liberal donor.
But what’s toxic to Trudeau’s credibility is the way he combines the two projects, hobnobbing and fundraising. He could meet all the swells he wants, as long as he doesn’t charge admission. In the meantime, he and his ministers do what he bragged they wouldn’t. A classic case of promising more than he feels like delivering.
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