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Trudeau’s new era of transparency off to an iffy start

So much for that new era of ethics and transparency. This week, Justin Trudeau's Liberals have fended off criticism of a dubious fundraiser with old-time, politics-as-usual tactics.

They used the clichéd methods of political wagon-circling: pointing to the other parties' past transgressions, taking offence at the ethical critique, pointing to an authority who supposedly cleared the transgressor, general obfuscation and plain old time-wasting.

The topic was a $500-a-head fundraiser that featured Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, held at the Toronto offices of high-end law form Torys on April 7. It was quietly organized by a lawyer at the firm, until the CBC told the world. The Liberal Party hasn't said who attended.

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Most Canadians probably have one of two reactions to that. The first is, 'Yuck.' A minister shouldn't be the bait for raising money from her department's clientele. The Justice Minister, for example, appoints judges from the ranks of lawyers. It doesn't pass the smell test. The second is a shrug – that's the way politics is done.

But Mr. Trudeau promised a high standard. He made it clear, too. He released a guide for ministers called Open and Accountable Government. It tells ministers they must ensure fundraising doesn't affect, "or appear to affect," their duties "or the access of individuals and organizations to government." It also says "there should be no preferential access to government, or appearance of preferential access" because of a political donation.

That's clear. It's not a question of whether the minister was bought for $500. It's whether there's an appearance of preferential access. Ms. Wilson-Raybould's fundraiser created one. But the Liberals decided to defend it.

After a week of Question Period jousting, a Conservative MP, Michael Cooper, decided to press on with a motion urging the minister to follow Mr. Trudeau's guidelines. It's a piece of politicking, of course. But it is a valid question: Will you live up to those standards?

So how did the Liberals respond? To start with, in the debate on the motion on Tuesday, they asserted that Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson had declared the fundraiser didn't break any rules. Liberal MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes even noted Ms. Dawson sent a letter to Mr. Cooper. "What part of the three-page response from the Ethics Commissioner did you not understand?" she asked.

But it's Ms. Caesar-Chavannes who didn't get it. Ms. Dawson doesn't enforce Mr. Trudeau's rules, she only interprets the law. And as she pointed out in the letter, the Conflict of Interest Act's provisions on fundraising are "quite narrow in scope." A minister would only break the law if they personally solicited a donation that put them in a conflict. And all Ms. Dawson said was that the fundraiser didn't break the law.

That's the kind of ethical-standard switcheroo the Liberals used during the sponsorship scandal: asserting they didn't break the law, as if that's all that matters.

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Then there was return fire. Liberal MPs like David de Burgh Graham and Government House Leader Dominic Leblanc recounted Tory scandals like the Mike Duffy affair, the in-and-out scheme and the elections-law conviction of former MP Dean Del Mastro, plus the NDP's office-expense scandal. All true, but what was the point? It seemed like Mr. Graham was getting to it when he said "Canadians deserve better," but then he just went back to noting the ethics commissioner said the minister didn't break the law. The point was that the other parties were no better.

What else? Liberals argued Canadians don't want MPs to waste time on such questions – an old deflecting tactic. One recited the history of conflict guidelines. Several took offence.

"This motion is a vicious and unfounded attack on an indigenous leader, a woman who has and continues to serve her nation honourably," said Maryam Monsef, the Minister for Democratic Institutions. "And the motion is not helping Canadians' democracy." Well, the debate certainly didn't help Canadians' democracy, anyway.

In fact, this didn't really have to be about Ms. Wilson-Raybould's integrity. The event was probably organized by party officials who told her where to show up. The Liberals could simply have said that on reflection, it was a mistake, and promised to live up to higher standards. Instead, they broke out the old deflection toolkit.

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