Monday, April 18, 2016

Two very different Liberal responses to fundraising scandals

Published in the Ottawa Sun

A Liberal government on its way out and a Liberal government on its way in: two very different ways of dealing with fundraising scandals.

On the same day as Ontario Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne promised “tough” new legislation on electoral financing, one of Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet ministers was defending her decision to attend a private $500-a-plate fundraising dinner that put her neutrality as a minister in jeopardy.

Talk about irony.

But it gets better. Trudeau’s cabinet minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould, defended her fundraising gala because – even though she’s the Attorney General of Canada, the main attraction at an event exclusively advertised to lawyers, held at a private law firm – she says she escaped her cabinet position for the night and attended just as an ordinary Member of Parliament.

If that line passed the smell test, Wynne’s cabinet ministers would have used it weeks ago. Both the federal and provincial Liberals are facing similar scandals, yet their handling of them is markedly different.

In January, the Toronto Star revealed the Ontario Liberals set aggressive fundraising quotas for cabinet ministers – so aggressive that the newspaper implied the “price of admission” to cabinet is to continue meeting these targets. Even lobbyists complained that they were told to buy a ticket to a fundraiser if they wanted to pitch their proposals.

“Want to chat with the Energy Minister? That’ll be $7,500” is a despicable way of running a government.

Yet Premier Wynne has offered no apology, and in fact her only justification has been “we all do it” – the same excuse Wilson-Raybould has offered.

It’s interesting that one Liberal Party has promised “tough” changes while the other continues to arrogantly stand up and defend its selling of access to cabinet ministers. It’s as if Wynne is taking a page from Stephen Harper while the federal Liberals are ignoring her.

Harper was rocketed into the Prime Minister’s office in 2006 with the simple but effective message that money has no place buying influence in politics. His message resonated with people disgusted with the Liberals’ use of taxpayers’ money for partisan purposes, which culminated in the Sponsorship Scandal.

Wynne seems intent on following Harper’s lead and avoiding the same demise the federal Liberals faced. Her “seven-piece” legislation proposal is quite similar to the federal Accountability Act. Banning corporate and union donations, capping donations at the federal limits, changing third-party advertising rules, and limiting loans and loan guarantees to parties, candidates, and leadership contestants are all consistent with Harper’s Accountability Act.

Some of Wynne’s proposals go further than the Accountability Act because she needs to demonstrate she’s now serious about fixing a system that has remained broken under her party’s watch for the last 13 years.

Some of her reforms are only necessary because the Liberals made them necessary: introducing by-election donation limits comes after the Liberals raised $1.6 million on a by-election with a $142,000 spending limit. (They lost the by-election anyway and the money went to the provincial party.)

And it’s convenient that these revelations only came after the Liberals held a $2.5 million fundraiser.

Meanwhile, the Trudeau Liberals should rightly face the same skepticism, especially when their ministers continue to use excuses like “I took the night off from being the minister to attend this event,” and “we all do it, so it’s okay.”

Trudeau’s government is still fresh and high on sunny ways, but they could learn a lot from Kathleen Wynne’s government, on its way out for precisely the same scandals and arrogance.