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Reporter calls out restricted access at Liberal ‘open fundraising’ event

By Shruti Shekar      

The party says it's providing reporters with 'unprecedented transparency and accountability' at these type of events.

Videographers and photographers shoot behind a roped-off area at the back of the room in which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is speaking at a Laurier Club donor appreciation event at the Canadian War Museum on June 19. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

A Hill journalist is calling into question the Liberal Party’s promise to make its fundraising events more open and transparent, after party staff restricted media access at a June 19 Ottawa event for the party’s top donors.

It was the first such event in Ottawa under the party’s new “open fundraising” format, introduced earlier this spring. The donor appreciation night for Laurier Club members (those who donate at least $1,500 annually to the party, or $750 for those under 35) featured Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) speaking at the Canadian War Museum, though journalists did not have freedom to mingle with the crowd.

Reporters were ushered into one room for an RCMP sweep prior to speeches. They were told they were not allowed to mingle, but could talk to guests registering and entering the event in the foyer of the museum.

Once inside the event, journalists were cordoned off in one area, and not allowed to mingle with guests freely. They were ushered out of the room after speeches and not allowed to stay for the whole event.

“File this under things I don’t understand: LPC kicks media out of their open fundraiser & tries to prevent journalists from talking to folks,” wrote Althia Raj, Ottawa bureau chief at Huffington Post Canada, on Twitter.

“This is only the most pro-Trudeau group of individuals who will give us the most enthusiastic responses to [the Liberal government’s] accomplishments.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at the June 19 Canadian War Museum event for Laurier Club top donors to the Liberal Party of Canada. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

In an emailed response after the event, she said: “I would say surprise/shock was probably my first reaction and then confusion.”

Ms. Raj was one of five reporters at the event, and noted when the party said it would “facilitate media coverage,” she thought it meant a showcase of “how ‘open and transparent’ their fundraising events were.”

“I assumed we would be allowed to walk around and talk to people, much like a campaign event where the PM makes a speech and we roam the room and chat with people who are happy to talk to us,” said Ms. Raj, who tried to talk to a donor, but noted Braeden Caley, senior director of communications for the Liberal Party of Canada, was “hanging around very close to us.”

On April 6, the federal Liberal Party announced new fundraising rules, after months of negative media coverage about the party organizing so-called cash-for-access fundraisers. The party fundraisers saw donors shell out upwards of $1,000 in exchange for access to cabinet ministers, usually invited to a function held in a private home.

In an effort to make the events more transparent, the party decided to publicly advertise each event featuring a cabinet minister in advance and report the guest list no more than 45 days after. It also committed to hosting parties in publicly accessible spaces.

Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould (Burlington, Ont.) introduced Bill C-50 on May 31, addressing political financing and cash-for-access events, in an attempt to codify similar rules for all parties. On June 15 it was referred to the House Procedure and House Affairs Committee for study.

When asked why reporters weren’t allowed to mingle with guests at the Liberal event this week, Mr. Caley responded via email that the party was the “first and only political party that is facilitating media coverage so members of the press can see the remarks and everyone who is in the room.”

He reiterated the party’s promises, saying they “ensure unprecedented transparency and accountability.”

Mr. Caley noted the party was challenging the Conservative Party and New Democratic Party to follow suit and “match this transparency.”

The party preferred that reporters didn’t mingle among the crowd of Laurier Club donors at the June 19 event. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Cory Hann, director of communications for the Conservative Party, noted via email that any changes to rules the Liberal Party made are “because they couldn’t follow the ones the Liberals themselves put in place.”

“Despite what the Liberals want people to believe, cash-for-government access is alive and well, and the changes they say they’ve made actually don’t address the issue at all,” Mr. Hann said.

Joan Bryden, a reporter for the Canadian Press covering the fundraiser, said in an interview after the event that if reporters are only allowed to hear the speeches and are then ushered out, they have no way of hanging around and listening in on conversations in the room. “But to be perfectly honest, I don’t think that’s possible at any event…like this with that many people.”

While Ms. Bryden still spoke to guests Monday night, she said it was done while standing behind the rope keeping journalists in one area.

“It was clear that you were meant to stay back there, but I wandered down the length of it, back and forth, and waved to a few people who came over,” Ms. Bryden said.

Towards the end of the allotted media time, Ms. Raj said she tried interviewing a former candidate but “there was another Liberal staffer who was there and kept saying [the media] were no longer invited to be in the room and was pushing us out.”

Gerald Butts, principal secretary to the prime minister, was among the event attendees. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

The experience was different at another fundraising event hosted in Montreal on May 4, according to Giuseppe Valiante, a Montreal reporter with Canadian Press.

Mr. Valiante said via email that the event had about 10 reporters who “were allowed into the event…and were able to walk freely around the venue and speak with whomever we wanted.”

He said reporters entered the event 15 to 20 minutes before Mr. Trudeau’s speech and were “asked by the party’s media handlers to leave the venue while he took photos with attendees.”

“We were specifically asked to leave after he gave his speech,” Mr. Valiante said.

Allan Thompson, a journalism professor at Carleton University who ran for the Liberals in the riding of Huron–Bruce, Ont. during the 2015 election and attended Monday’s event, said in an interview afterward that he had sympathy for the reporters who weren’t allowed to mingle, especially because of his background as a former Hill reporter with The Toronto Star.

“Althia wanted to interview me…and then she kind of came out from under the rope like it was a big deal to come out from behind the media pen,” Mr. Thompson said.

Despite the ropes holding reporters back, Mr. Thompson said that it was just a few months ago that reporters weren’t allowed to come to any fundraising event, and now they are allowed to, with some rules.

“There are always going to be ground rules and in the case of fundraisers, as I understand it, until very recently the ground rules for all parties [were] they were closed,” he said.

sshekar@hilltimes.com

Clarifications: This story has been changed to clarify that Althia Raj said the second person she talked to was not a donor but a former candidate. The headline has also been changed to better characterize her comments. And mention of the Laurier Club membership has been changed to note that in addition to the $1,500 annual membership, donors under 35 give $750 annually.

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