Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came up with a new line of defence to justify Liberal Party cash-for-access fundraisers that are held in the homes of wealthy Canadians, telling Parliament he goes to these events to talk up his plan to tax the rich and help the struggling middle class.
The day after he acknowledged people lobby him at the $1,500-per-ticket receptions – in direction violation of Liberal Party fundraising rules – Mr. Trudeau faced withering criticism in the House of Commons on Tuesday and demands to stop the practice.
"On the day that he was sworn in, he said that he was committed to the highest ethical standards and now that has become a joke," interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose told the Prime Minister. "What happened? When did money become more important than the integrity of his office?"
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For weeks, the Prime Minister has insisted all rules are being followed when he attends pay-to-play receptions that are held in the homes of well-heeled business executives and where the party can take in $50,000 to $120,000 per event.
However, on Tuesday, Mr. Trudeau shifted to a different message, saying the special-access fundraisers give him an opportunity to tell wealthy Canadians that they won't be getting any breaks from his government.
"No matter where I am or who I am talking to I always talk about the same thing: The fact that our priorities are to create economic growth for the middle class by increasing taxes for the 1 per cent of the wealthiest so we are able to reduce them for the middle class," he told MPs. "We point out that we stopped sending out child benefits to wealthy families so we can do more for the families who need it."
Ms. Ambrose reminded the Prime Minister that Chinese billionaires have also attended Liberal fundraisers with him even though they aren't allowed to donate. One of them, Zhang Bin, who is also a Communist Party apparatchik, attended a May 19 fundraiser at the Toronto home of Chinese Business Chamber of Canada chair Benson Wong. A few weeks later, Mr. Zhang and a business partner donated $200,000 to the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation and $50,000 to build a statue of Mr. Trudeau's father.
"Everyone knows they are not writing these cheques out of the goodness of their hearts because they only started doing this when he became Prime Minister to buy access to him," she charged, urging the Prime Minister to tell the Trudeau Foundation to stop accepting money from people trying to gain influence with the government.
"The Trudeau Foundation is an independent foundation established in the memory of my father with which I ceased to have any engagement shortly after having become leader of the Liberal Party," Mr. Trudeau said as the opposition MPs erupted in howls of laughter. Mr. Trudeau appeared flustered by the reaction. Commons Speaker Geoff Regan interjected, allowing Mr. Trudeau to finish his remarks that the Trudeau Foundation "does good work to advance the cause of social sciences and humanities in a non-partisan way."
Mr. Trudeau's brother, Alexandre, sits on the board of the Trudeau Foundation, which was set up with $125-million from the former Chrétien government. The government also appoints two directors to the board.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair accused Mr. Trudeau of breaking his own party rules, which state "fundraising events are partisan functions where we do not discuss government business" and "any individual who wishes to initiate a policy discussion is immediately directed to instead make an appointment with the relevant office."
Mr. Trudeau did not say why he was violating Liberal Party rules and he ducked a question from Mr. Mulcair who urged him to back an NDP private member's bill that would give Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson the authority to investigate cash-for-access fundraisers.
Instead, he continued to repeat that his government's priority is to tax the very rich and to champion the interests of middle-class Canadians.
Ms. Dawson has called cash-for-access "not very savoury." She has asked Parliament to give her the legal power to enforce Mr. Trudeau's own government guidelines that say "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."
The opposition leaders have brought up example after example of pay-to-play events where donors raised government issues with Mr. Trudeau or other cabinet ministers and parliamentary secretaries.
Among the exclusive fundraisers that have drawn fire is the May 19 event. One of the donors there was an insurance tycoon, Shenglin Xian, who was awaiting federal approval for a new bank to begin operations.
The Globe also reported that B.C. multimillionaire Miaofei Pan hosted a Nov. 7 fundraiser at his West Vancouver mansion and made the case to the Prime Minister to allow Chinese investment in seniors' care and real estate development, and ease rules for rich immigrants from China. This took place as the federal government has been reviewing a $1-billion bid by China's Anbang Insurance Group to buy one of British Columbia's biggest retirement home-nursing care chains.
The Liberal Party recently returned donations to representatives of the Cannabis Friendly Business Association after The Globe reported that they lobbied Liberal MP Bill Blair, who is the government's marijuana czar, at a party fundraiser on April 28.