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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference at the conclusion of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Lima this week. (Guadalupe Pardo/Reuters)
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference at the conclusion of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Lima this week. (Guadalupe Pardo/Reuters)

Globe editorial

Justin Trudeau didn't invent cash-for-access, but he can end it Add to ...

Let’s get this straight: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was the marquee attraction last May at a cash-for-access Liberal Party fundraiser attended by a powerful Chinese government adviser and a Canadian businessman seeking final approval from federal bank regulators to launch a new bank.

The Chinese government adviser, Zhang Bin, went on after the fundraiser to donate, with another Chinese businessman, $200,000 to the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, where Mr. Trudeau’s brother Alexandre sits on the board.

And the businessman hoping to open a Schedule 1 bank serving Canada’s Chinese community? Shenglin Xian got his final approval from the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions (OSFI), which reports to Parliament through Finance Minister Bill Morneau, in July.

Read more: Trudeau attended cash-for-access fundraiser with Chinese billionaires

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Related: Drug company billionaire pulls out of Liberal cash-for-access fundraiser

Canadians will have to do their own smell test on this series of coincidences. A Liberal Party spokesperson says no business was discussed at the fundraiser. Mr. Zhang, as a Chinese citizen, is not allowed to donate to the Liberal Party, and there is no evidence that he did. It is also important to note that Mr. Xian won preliminary approval for his new bank last year, and the OSFI did not need Mr. Morneau’s approval to sign off on the final paperwork.

In other words, there’s no evidence that money and favours were explicitly traded. But that’s not the low bar that the government, or any politician, must clear. Mr. Trudeau attended an exclusive $1,500-a-person fundraiser in the mansion of a wealthy Chinese-Canadian businessman – and by doing so violated basic principles that are very clearly expressed in his own Open and Accountable Government rules.

Those rules, designed to remove the appearance of conflict of interest, state that “there should be no preferential access, or appearance of preferential access” in exchange for political donations.

Mr. Trudeau’s presence also violated Liberal Party guidelines that ban anyone who has direct business interests before the government from attending fundraisers.

It is equally startling that the Liberals would call an event involving foreign nationals, including state actors, a “party fundraiser.” Mr. Zhang, a wealthy businessman, is a political adviser to Beijing and president of the China Cultural Industry Association, which is supervised and regulated by two Chinese state ministries and is charged with building international ties for Beijing.

What further cannot be denied is that some of the people who attended that meeting were subsequently blessed with good news. That includes Mr. Trudeau, who saw a large donation go to a organization named after his father.

It’s all too cozy by half. And it leaves the impression that the Justin Trudeau Liberals have taken up the muddied mantle that is currently being shed by Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne.

Ms. Wynne’s party created a business model around cash-for-access fundraising, in which Ontario cabinet ministers were assigned fundraising quotas and told to fill them by hitting up people who did business with, or were regulated by, their departments.

Thanks to public pressure, Ms. Wynne had to change course. She ultimately did a 180-degree turn on her claim that her government’s sordid shakedown was acceptable because it fell inside the province’s political fundraising rules. She has since rewritten those very rules.

Mr. Trudeau has been using the same tired deflection, arguing that the federal rules are the toughest in the land and that his party is respecting them. Federal law bans corporate and union donations and limits personal donations to parties to $1,525 per year.

How long can that deflection continue to be effective in the face of proof that Mr. Trudeau and his cabinet members are willing to help his party collect $1,525 cheques from people who seek their favour? Yes, it’s currently legal. But it shouldn’t be.

It seems inevitable that the continuous revelations about wealthy business people buying their way into intimate soirees with the Prime Minister and his ministers will force a retreat similar to the one executed by Ms. Wynne.

The simplest and best course of action would be for Mr. Trudeau’s government to introduce legislation lowering individual donation limits. Dropping them to just $100 per person would price cash-for-access fundraising out of business for good. Mr. Trudeau should also turn over the enforcement of his Open and Accountable Government rules to the federal ethics commissioner and remove the proverbial fox from the hen house door.

Mr. Trudeau likes Canadians to think he represents a new brand of Liberal politics, one that has nothing to do with the fundraising scandals of the party’s recent past. But he undermined that claim the first time he got a look at how being in power encourages the writing of $1,525 cheques. He can restore his party’s image by lowering the donation limit to $100. It’s up to him.

 

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