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Opinion Trudeau's real problem: Pretending he's above money grubbing

There's one thing I don't get about Justin Trudeau's cash-for-access scandal. Why is everyone so shocked that there's gambling going on here?

Money is the oxygen of politics. And politicians are always in need of money. Just the other day, the Prime Minister himself sent me an e-mail. "Absolutely urgent, Margaret," he said. "We only have until midnight tonight to reach $1-million in grassroots online donations. But we won't make it without you, Margaret."

I'll get something too. For $99, I'll get a winter toque emblazoned with the party logo. For $199, I can get a scarf. Plus a tax deduction!

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"Dear Justin," I wrote back. "I'm so glad you and I are on first-name terms! For another $1,301, maybe you can send me an invite to your next networking event. We can meet some billionaires and discuss how to help the middle class." Sadly, I haven't heard back yet.

The trouble with Mr. Trudeau's elite fundraisers isn't so much that he has them. Everybody has them, in one form or another, although Kathleen Wynne has had to shut them down because they got too egregious and her polling numbers are in the tank. Access is always on offer to those with connections and/or money. The trouble was pretending that, unlike every other party leader who ever lived, he is above party politics and money grubbing.

The Liberal Party's own rules state, "There should be no preferential access to government, or appearance of preferential access" for party donors. That is a mistake. Not even saints could meet this standard – and the Liberals are no saints. They have bagmen too, and some of them have been around forever. There is always a quid pro quo for generous donors to the party, even if it's just a photo souvenir of you with the great man that will impress your friends (to say nothing of your business connections back in China).

What got Mr. Trudeau into his present predicament was his ludicrous efforts to deny what every intelligent person knows. "Fundraising events are partisan functions where we do not discuss government business," the Liberal Party's interim national director declared last month. If you believe that, you probably believe that Santa Claus comes down the chimney on Christmas Eve.

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How much should we worry about all this? On the positive side, no one would confuse Canada with some Third World kleptocracy. No one would even confuse us with the United States, where politics is utterly beholden to moneyed interests. Our fundraising rules are quite restrictive, and our politicians (with some notorious exceptions) are relatively clean.

But it is definitely in the public interest to know, for example, that well-heeled Chinese entrepreneurs and high-level party apparatchiks are waging a charm offensive to enhance their influence with the government. It is definitely in the public interest to learn that a businessman named Zhang Bin donated $1-million to the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation (which Mr. Trudeau is no longer involved with) and the University of Montreal's law faculty. The donation, it should be noted, includes $50,000 for a statue of Justin's dad. Men like Mr. Zhang are too sophisticated to expect something specific in return for their generosity. What they want is for Mr. Trudeau to think kindly of them – and for folks in Ottawa to return their phone calls.

This week, Mr. Trudeau finally conceded that guests who pay for access to his presence do occasionally wish to talk about something other than the weather. But ordinary Canadians do too, he pointed out. His door is open to everyone. Also, it is a mistake to think that public policy can be swayed by a mere $1,500 donation to the party. Also, the only thing he ever talks about at those intimate fundraisers is what's good for the middle class. So really, there's no difference between Mr. Zhang and ordinary Canadians. You can sleep tight.

Alas, the ethics commissioner isn't sleeping tight. She's seen those party pix. So now she wants to have a little chat with Mr. Trudeau. It's highly doubtful that he's breaking any political financing laws, but she needs to show she's serious about her job. The Liberals hoped they could ride this out, but I don't think they can. They're going to have to kill off cash for access and find another way of raising money.

"Margaret," said another e-mail I got this week. "Every time I see a baby or a child I smile deep from the heart. It's been like that for as long as I can remember!" It was signed "Sophie." She wants me to send money. She wants me to know that she and Justin thank me from the bottom of their hearts. I can see how this is going. Next time, I'll hear from Hadrien.

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