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Politics Trudeau denies fundraising rules breach, but says he’s ‘open’ to reforms

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in a town hall with high school students in Ottawa on Nov. 3, 2016.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

Justin Trudeau opened the door to political financing reforms on Thursday that would crack down on fundraising events for which the Liberal Party has been accused of selling preferential access for cash in an apparent violation of the Prime Minister's own ethical rules.

"I'm always open to discussions about how we can improve our democracy, how we can better earn every day the trust of Canadians that is required for a government to work well," Mr. Trudeau told a news conference when asked if he would consider limiting donations, restricting party spending between elections or returning to the per-vote public subsidy.

"So I'm always open to conversations about how to improve our systems of government, and I look forward to continuing these conversations in the years to come."

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Read more: Lobbying watchdog probes Liberal 'pay-for-access' fundraisers

Read more: Trudeau defends cash-for-access fundraising

Editorial: With cash-for-access, Justin Trudeau picks up where Kathleen Wynne left off

It is the first time since The Globe and Mail revealed the cash-for-access fundraising two weeks ago that the Prime Minister has acknowledged the controversy may need to be addressed.

Still, as he has done repeatedly over the past couple of weeks, Mr. Trudeau denied any breach of the Open and Accountable Government rules for lobbying and fundraising that he announced last November. The document states that "there should be no preferential access or appearance of preferential access" in exchange for political donations.

"The open-and-transparent-government document, which we are fully following and respecting, is available for everyone to review on the internet, because that's the part of openness and transparency that this government has," he said. But he then argued his ministers are not violating any election financing laws.

Mr. Trudeau made his comments on the day that Conservative Party – with the support of the NDP – tabled a motion to end the practice in which senior cabinet ministers are star attractions at elite fundraisers that cost as much as $1,500 a ticket.

The opposition parties want the government to transfer authority over the new rules to ethics commissioner Mary Dawson so she can legally enforce them.

"The solution is to shine the light on this. … Let us have the ethics commissioner take a look. Let us trust in her judgment, her wisdom and her office to have all of the information to make a determination as to whether this is kosher," Conservative MP Blaine Calkins told the House of Commons.

The motion was tabled in response to reports in The Globe on Liberal Party fundraising events that have a small enough number of attendees to guarantee each one an opportunity to bend the ear of a powerful political figure.

During debate on the issue in the House on Thursday, government MPs said the Liberals have not breached election financing laws, which allow parties to collect $3,050 a year from donors.

"The federal rules are some of the strongest in the country, and donations and contributions are made in an open and transparent fashion. … We follow all the rules and laws around fundraising, Mr. Speaker," Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux told the House.

"No laws have been broken," added Liberal MP Ginette Petitpas.

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Conservative MP Mark Strahl shot back: "You are defending the indefensible."

A vote is expected on Nov. 15 on the motion, which is clearly aimed at putting Mr. Trudeau on the spot.

"To listen to the Liberals say it today, these are things that anybody can pay $5 and just walk into," NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said. "The problem is, it costs $1,500 and it is being held, of course, behind closed doors."

The NDP is preparing a motion to call a key Liberal fundraiser to the Commons ethics committee to discuss how these elite fundraisers are organized and who is invited. The New Democrats are going to propose calling Jon Dugal, co-ordinator of development and events for the Liberal Party, to testify about his role in the organization of private fundraising events involving cabinet ministers.

Last week, Ms. Dawson, the federal ethics watchdog, called the Liberal Party's cash-for-access fundraisers "unsavoury" but said she has no legal authority to enforce the Trudeau directives.

Ms. Dawson has called on Parliament to adopt tougher fundraising laws that would address selling access for party donations. She said the Open and Accountable Government rules are tougher than the current conflict-of-interest laws, and those rules should be transferred to her to enforce.

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The Privy Council Office, the bureaucratic agency that serves the Prime Minister's Office, is responsible for policing Mr. Trudeau's rules.

When the Privy Council Office was asked why it was not enforcing the rules, it referred The Globe to the Prime Minister's Office. Mr. Trudeau's press secretary Cameron Ahmad wrote back to say the rules are guidance for ministers and "the fact is the guidance was followed and no preferential treatment or access was provided."

Federal Lobbying Commissioner Karen Shepherd announced last week she is investigating the exclusive fundraisers, including a $500-a-ticket event being held next week at which Finance Minister Bill Morneau is the scheduled guest.

One of the organizers of that event is Barry Sherman, chairman of generic drug firm Apotex, which has lobbied the Finance Department. Apotex launched a $500-million lawsuit against the federal government last month over a 2014 import ban on drugs from India.

"Apotex is suing the federal government and organizing a fundraiser for the Minister of Finance, the same Minister of Finance who sits on the cabinet litigation committee, deciding what the government strategy should be on the lawsuit faced by the government," Mr. Calkins told the House.

With a report from Laura Stone in Ottawa

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