Was it a conflict of interest for Finance Minister Bill Morneau to have attended a $1,500-a-head fundraising event at the home of a Halifax-area real estate developer? What about a $1,500-a-ticket event that was planned for last month, where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was to have been the feature attraction, and which was only cancelled due to the PM's need to attend the funeral of former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres? What about the attendance of other cabinet members at similar shindigs, where many paying customers were likely to have been the sort seeking to curry favour with the government?
To say it doesn't look good is a bit of an understatement. It's hard to see how these meetings don't violate the Liberal government's own guidelines about ministers avoiding "the appearance of conflict of interest and situations that have the potential to involve conflicts of interest."
Yet at the same time, no law appears to have been broken. That's partly because the federal law on conflict of interest is not as strong as it could be. But it's also because our system of political fundraising is itself built on a long-standing conflict between two fundamentally opposed interests, namely, a politician's need to raise money to get elected, and her legal obligation to pretend that, once elected, she will be completely disinterested when dealing with the very people who just gave her large amounts of money. The law says it's possible. Human nature would beg to differ.
Bill Morneau, a minister of the Crown, has a duty to not offer any special consideration to his financial backers. But to pay for an election campaign, which is how you get elected and how you become a minister, Bill Morneau, politician, has to court donors. Every MP does. Our system of election finance demands it. He has to persuade people to write him cheques, and current rules say they can contribute up to $1,525 per person.
Not surprisingly, the people most interested in giving money to a politician are often those with vested interest in the decisions of said politician. Yeah, fancy that.
Until the early 2000s, party bagmen roamed the land, and events like the one Mr. Morneau attended in Halifax were the norm (usually with much higher price tags). That changed under new rules brought in as Jean Chrétien was leaving office, which lowered donation limits and restricted union and corporate contributions. A few years later, under Stephen Harper, union and corporate donations were banned outright, and individual limits were further reduced.
But even after these reforms, Canadian politicians are still in the business of fundraising, often in relatively large amounts. And most of those people writing big cheques aren't doing so solely out of the goodness of their hearts.
That's the basic conflict at the centre of our system. So how to fix it?
Some people think the problem is that politicians attend events with wealthy donors, or any donors at all. For example, Ontario's Liberal government, which until recently gave ministers fundraising quotas that were often fulfilled through exclusive get-togethers with ticket prices of up to $10,000, is now planning on barring all MPPs from attending any fundraising events.
At first blush, that sounds like a great idea. But think about it for a moment. A rule preventing politicians from being physically present at fundraisers doesn't get politicians out of the business of fundraising. The problem, surely, is that someone can still write a $1,500 cheque to a federal minister – and much larger cheques in many provinces. Insisting that the elected official not be bodily present at the place where the money changes hands, while leaving everything else unchanged, seems like an elaborate exercise in missing the point.
Let's say Ottawa were to bring in the same rule as Ontario is poised to adopt. What would that accomplish? Unless we outlaw the telephone, not much. It will not prevent the minister, his staff or the party's fundraising arm from phoning up someone and asking for a $1,500 donation. Nor will it prevent the donor from having a subsequent conversation or meeting with the minister.
If a restaurant dining room closes at 9 p.m. but the drive-thru window keeps going all night, the place can fairly be described as being open for business.
The threat of big donors influencing politicians is real. But there's a simple, effective fix: Outlaw big donors. Continue the reforms begun under Mr. Chrétien and Mr. Harper, by banning all but the smallest donations.
Ottawa could follow Quebec's model by dropping the individual limit down to just $100. If we're serious about putting an end to opportunities for conflict of interest, lowering political contribution limits is the only way to get there.