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Conservatives, NDP say Liberal fundraising changes only cosmetic

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says cash-for-access fundraisers will now be open for public scrutiny, but is not lowering the up to $1,500 ticket price

Chris Bolin/Reuters

Federal opposition parties who led the attack on the Trudeau government's cash-for-access fundraising are now dismissing Liberal changes that would lift the veil of secrecy from this moneymaking, calling the proposal cosmetic.

The Conservatives and the New Democrats declined to say whether they support the Liberal government's plan to extend these changes so they would also apply to opposition party leaders. Both parties said they wanted to first study the legislation when it is released.

As The Globe and Mail reported Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will crack down on cash-for-access fundraising by passing legislation that addresses criticism the Liberal Party has been offering privileged access to wealthy donors who pay as much as $1,500 for tickets. It would require future fundraisers featuring cabinet ministers to be transparent, open to public scrutiny and reported to Canadians.

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Related: Trudeau to end controversial cash-for-access fundraisers

Read more: Elections commissioner urged to investigate cash-for-access allegations

Read more: Cash-for-access organizers sought payments that exceeded federal contribution limits

Interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose said a new law will not make these fundraisers – where Mr. Trudeau has acknowledged to being lobbied – more ethical.

"I don't think we need new legislation," Ms. Ambrose told a news conference in Quebec City, adding current ethical guidelines are adequate but are not being followed. Existing rules, such as the Open and Accountable Government policy championed by Mr. Trudeau in 2015, do not have the force of law and only apply to cabinet ministers and not opposition party leaders or leadership candidates.

The proposed Liberal legislation is designed to eliminate the elite, behind-closed-doors conditions that could lead to lobbying by requiring that all fundraisers featuring cabinet ministers are publicly advertised ahead of time, that they take place in publicly accessible venues rather than private homes or clubs, and that a report on how many attended and how much was raised is released in a timely manner.

The Liberal Party will also commit to allowing journalists to attend all of their fundraising events featuring cabinet ministers and says it will be up to the Conservatives and NDP and other parties to similarly pledge such openness.

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"We believe in providing Canadians with more open, transparent information about political fundraising that involves cabinet ministers, party leaders and leadership candidates," Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould said Friday. "We will bring forward a plan to do just that. I'm looking forward to working with parliamentarians to make political fundraising more open and accountable."

Queen's University economist Christopher Cotton applauded the Liberal government for moving to take party fundraising out of the shadows and make it accountable to the public.

"It is a pretty good idea because the cash-for-access fundraisers – ticketed private fundraisers – certainly create the perception of corruption amongst the public," he said. "The idea that those with money have greater access and greater influence over policy and that they are given priority – so it makes sense the government wants to reduce this perception."

A Liberal Party spokesman said the party is preparing to run ministerial fundraising events from now on under the proposed new rules. "The Liberal Party of Canada has already started work to ensure that future fundraising events that feature Mr. Trudeau or other Liberal MPs who serve as ministers will be hosted in publicly available spaces and meet even higher standards for transparency, including advance posting, timely reporting of event details and facilitating press coverage," party spokesman Braeden Caley said.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said the fact the Liberals have come forward with changes is an admission Mr. Trudeau's party has been doing something wrong. He called on the Liberals to refund the millions of dollars they have raised since taking office 16 months ago.

"If the Liberals are admitting that their cash-for-access events were wrong, will they be returning all the money they raised?" Mr. Mulcair asked in a statement. "If Justin Trudeau suddenly believes that the fundraisers he held during his leadership race were wrong, will he be returning all of that money? Or is this just what it looks like, a cynical game to distract from Liberals helping themselves?"

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He said the problem still remains that the Liberals will be collecting as much as $1,550 from Canadians in exchange for events with cabinet ministers. That amount is the 2017 individual limit on annual donations to a federal political party.

"Let's also be clear, there is nothing here that actually bans selling access to ministers, which is the overarching problem."

The Liberals' legislative initiative is in response to a series of revelations in The Globe and Mail that showed Mr. Trudeau and senior cabinet members were raising millions of dollars through private fundraisers with tickets as high as $1,500 that gave donors access to his cabinet outside of the glare of public scrutiny.

Ms. Ambrose said opening up the existing system to more scrutiny is not the solution. "That's not the issue. The issue is selling influence. It's asking people to pay to meet with government officials to discuss government business."

"All Mr. Trudeau has to do is stop having cash-for-access events," the Conservative leader said.

Opposition parties have called on Mr. Trudeau to transfer responsibility for the government's Open and Accountable Government guidelines – currently policed by a central agency that reports to the Prime Minister – to the Conflict of Interest Act. That would give the Office of the Ethics Commissioner the legislative clout to police and investigate political fundraisers.

Prof. Cotton at Queen's said he agreed with opposition parties on this.

NDP ethics critic Alexandre Boulerice is preparing to table a private member's bill shortly that will toughen rules around fundraisers with cabinet ministers and give the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner more power to investigate these events.

The Liberals were accused in recent months of quietly holding private fundraisers featuring Mr. Trudeau or key cabinet ministers that targeted wealthy business people, including some from the Chinese-Canadian community.

The party's fundraising practices over 2015 and 2016 also ran counter to internal Liberal Party rules, held up by the party as evidence of due diligence, that say "there is a thorough process to ensure that the rules are followed – especially that no department stakeholder, lobbyist, or employees of lobbying firms are specially targeted for fundraising."

In mid-December, Mr. Trudeau himself conceded people lobbied him at the fundraisers but said he ultimately made up his own mind as to what policy is good for Canadians.

Days later, the Ethics Commissioner announced she would question the Prime Minister to determine whether Mr. Trudeau breached the Conflict of Interest Act when he attended party fundraisers with corporate executives wanting favours from Ottawa.

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Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

Ottawa Bureau Chief

Robert Fife is The Globe and Mail's Ottawa Bureau Chief and the host of CTV's "Question Period with The Globe and Mail's Robert Fife." He uncovered the Senate expense scandal, setting the course for an RCMP investigation, audits and reform of Senate expense rules. In 2012, he exposed the E. More

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