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Trudeau defends cash-for-access fundraising

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during Question Period on the House of Commons Tuesday. Mr. Trudeau responded to criticism from opposition MPs about his ministers attending pay-to-play fundraising parties.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says financial donation limits in federal politics are too low for wealthy donors to buy influence with his cabinet ministers.

Mr. Trudeau defended the ruling party's cash-for-access fundraisers in the House of Commons on Tuesday after reports in The Globe and Mail about events in which Canadians pay up to $1,500 a ticket for privileged time with cabinet members in charge of key spending and policy decisions.

"In our federal system, we have very clear, restrictive and robust rules concerning fundraising. It's impossible for someone to give more than $1,500 per year to a federal party. … That is why we don't have money influencing political decisions," Mr. Trudeau told the House. "The rules in place ensure that when those rules are followed there are no ethical breaches."

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Read more: Drug firm executive helps organize cash-for-access fundraiser featuring Bill Morneau

Read more: Liberals avoid scrutiny for contentious cash-for-access fundraisers

Read more: Morneau fundraiser one in list of Liberal cash-for-access events

In fact, election financing laws put in place by the former Conservative government allow individuals to contribute $1,525 to a federal party and another $1,525 to a party's riding association for a total of $3,050.

Mr. Trudeau did not respond to questions about his Open and Accountable Government ethics rules, which he unveiled with much fanfare last November. They state that "there should be no preferential access or appearance of preferential access" in exchange for political donations.

"Providing privileged access to people who are ready to write $1,500 cheques to the Liberal Party clearly does not constitute ethical behaviour," NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said, calling on Mr. Trudeau to end the "pay to play" fundraisers.

Interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose joined the criticism: "These fundraisers are unethical and they violate the Prime Minister's own rules to raise money from people who are seeking preferential access to government."

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Conservative MP Blaine Calkins also went after the government over a $500-a-ticket special-access fundraiser planned for Nov. 7 in the upscale condominium of Toronto philanthropist Nancy Pencer and funeral home executive Michael Benjamin, at which Finance Minister Bill Morneau is the star attraction.

Helping to organize the private event are global venture capitalist Joel Reitman and Barry Sherman, the billionaire chairman and major shareholder of Apotex, the generic pharmaceutical giant. Apotex has lobbied the Finance department as well as Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains, Health Minister Jane Philpott and International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland.

"We know that Apotex has lobbied the finance minister three times in the last six months and Apotex is actively suing the federal government, so clearly the Prime Minister's rules are being broken," Mr. Calkins said. "The rules are clear that no stakeholder should get preferential access."

Mr. Sherman's Apotex launched a $500-million lawsuit against the federal government last month over a 2014 import ban. Back then, Ottawa forbid Apotex from bringing in drugs from two of its manufacturing facilities in India.

Apotex spokesman Elie Betito e-mailed The Globe on Tuesday to say the Nov. 7 fundraiser is a "private undertaking of the Sherman family" and it is "not part of Apotex's program of government relations." Later, he amended the statement, saying it is not a "Sherman family event" and Mr. Sherman is not hosting it. Mr. Sherman and his wife, Honey, are simply members of the event committee, Mr. Betito said in a follow up e-mail.

Government House Leader Bardish Chagger said the Nov. 7 event is "lawful and ethical fundraising."

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Mr. Morneau has defended his participation in such fundraisers, including one held on Oct. 13 in Halifax at which about 15 corporate executives donated $1,500 to the Liberal Party for private time with the Finance Minister. He said these events "are in fact open" to all Canadians – a statement his rivals have derided, saying not everyone can afford $1,500 tickets.

The style of fundraising, also known as pay-to-play access, has been controversial this year at the provincial level. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne unveiled campaign reforms after The Globe revealed that corporations and lobbyists paid thousand of dollars for exclusive ministerial access. B.C. Premier Christy Clark faced complaints for attending similar events.

The Globe found numerous instances this year in which the Trudeau Liberals ask people for donations of as much as $1,500 to spend time at private residences, hotels or other venues with senior ministers. The prize guests at these events include Mr. Morneau, Mr. Bains, Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi and Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly.

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About the Authors
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

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

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