Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sought to assure Canadians on Wednesday that despite "a lot of questions" about Liberal cash-for-access fundraisers that are generating hundreds of thousands of dollars, the governing party is not doing anything unethical or acting above the law.
In exchanges that appeared to rattle Mr. Trudeau and drew jeers from the opposition benches, Liberal fundraising dominated Question Period in the House of Commons as the other parties brought up example after example of events that appeared to mix government business with partisan efforts to raise money.
"I know, Mr. Speaker, that there are a lot of questions about these issues," Mr. Trudeau said. "But that is why it makes me happy to reassure Canadians that we indeed have among the strongest political financing rules in the country, which means that Canadians have confidence in the transparency, openness, rigour and accountability of our system, which this party has always followed and always will follow."
Interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose called Mr. Trudeau the principal player in an "unethical" Liberal fundraising scheme. The party can raise $50,000 to $120,000 at receptions in private homes where the Prime Minister is the prize guest.
She pointed to a May 19 fundraiser at the Toronto home of Chinese Canadian business executive Benson Wong.
One of the donors at the event was insurance tycoon Shenglin Xian, who was awaiting federal approval for a new bank to begin operations. Among the guests was Chinese billionaire Zhang Bin, who days later announced with a business partner a donation of $200,000 to the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation and $50,000 for a statue of Mr. Trudeau's father.
"Does the Prime Minister understand that this is not only unethical, it is more than likely illegal or does he just not care any more?" Ms. Ambrose said in the Commons.
Ms. Ambrose then raised the case of Vancouver multimillionaire Miaofei Pan, who told The Globe and Mail he hosted a Nov. 7 fundraiser at his home and made the case to the Prime Minister to allow Chinese investment in seniors' care and real estate development and to ease rules for immigrant investors. This took place as the Trudeau government is reviewing a $1-billion bid by China's Anbang Insurance Group to buy one of B.C.'s biggest retirement home-nursing care chains. Mr. Pan is not a lobbyist and does not represent Anbang.
"Based on these facts, this is not only unethical, it is illegal. Does the Prime Minister believe he is above the law," Ms. Ambrose said.
At times, Mr. Trudeau appeared flustered by the aggressive attacks and repeated that Canadians should have "confidence" in his government which, he said, understands "the values of openness, accountability, transparency that are required in order to maintain Canadians' trust in our government."
Wednesday was the first time Mr. Trudeau has been in Parliament since Nov. 30 to field questions about Liberal fundraisers.
During his absence, The Globe reported on Mr. Pan's comments about the Nov. 7 fundraiser. The opposition also pointed to a story in Wednesday's Globe that revealed the Liberals had marketed a recent $1,500 per ticket fundraiser in Montreal with Mr. Trudeau as an opportunity for donors to "form relationships and open dialogues with our government" and to network with other wealthy business executives.
"It's great to see the Prime Minister, really. I feel kind of lucky I didn't have to pay $1,500 to get in here," NDP Leader Tom Mulcair joked before turning serious.
"On behalf of all those Canadians who don't have $1,500 to get access to the Prime Minister, I want to ask a very simple question: Will he now admit that he has used his official position to pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into the coffers of the Liberal Party of Canada?"
Throughout Question Period, Mr. Trudeau stuck to the same response, repeating what he has said for weeks about Ottawa's electoral financing laws.
"With all these questions, it is important to reinforce the fact that at the federal level we have among the strongest principles and rules around fundraising in the country and those rules are always followed," he said.
Mr. Trudeau did not mention the rules he set for his cabinet when he came to power a year ago, which say, "there should be no preferential access or appearance of preferential access" in exchange for donations. Those rules are to be enforced by the Privy Council, an agency that reports to Mr. Trudeau.
The Prime Minister also did not mention that Liberal Party guidelines say "fundraising events are partisan functions where we do not discuss government business."
"Why is the Prime Minister so blatantly, so eagerly throwing his ethical guidelines out the window," Ms. Ambrose asked.
People who donate $1,500 a year to the Liberal Party become members of a group known as the Laurier Club. Later on Wednesday, Mr. Trudeau was the guest of honour at a holiday reception for club members at Ottawa's Museum of Nature. The "appreciation event" was to thank those donors, and younger supporters who pay $750 to be members.
Federal Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson is reviewing requests from the NDP and Conservatives to probe the cash-for-access fundraisers.
Opposition members have suggested they could violate the Conflict of Interest Act, the Lobbying Act and the Lobbyist Code of Conduct.
The opposition also asked Lobbying Commissioner Karen Shepherd to investigate. A spokesperson said: "The commissioner takes all allegations seriously. The Lobbying Act requires the commissioner to conduct all investigations and reviews in private."