Recent coverage of Liberal fundraising events leaves the impression that the rules don’t work. In fact we have one of the cleanest systems in the world.

I recently responded on Twitter to two articles, one by Don Martin and the other by Robert Fife, about fundraisers featuring Finance Minister Bill Morneau. Quite a few people have written to me asking to elaborate, or pushing back gently or forcefully on my apparent defence of federal Liberal fundraising practices (which wasn’t exactly my point). Although I responded to some of these people, I thought I’d take the opportunity afforded here, a medium that is more conducive to nuance than Twitter, to explain what I was and was not, saying.

For those not familiar with the Conflict of Interest Act and the further guidance on fundraising from the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, the rules are strict. That needs to be understood, or my criticism of the two articles won’t make much sense, so let me explain how they work, in theory and in practice.

As a general matter, ministers can attend fundraisers just as any member of Parliament can, but to avoid potential conflicts of interest, safeguards apply. For example, invitations cannot be targeted to stakeholders of the minister’s department, and stakeholders cannot pay to attend fundraisers with the minister. In this context the term “stakeholder,” which is used loosely in Ottawa, means something quite specific. In the commissioner’s words, a public office holder should not “solicit funds from a company or organization with which the public office holder, their office or their department has had official dealings or anticipates doing so” or from “a person or organization who has lobbied or is likely to lobby the public office holders or their office, department or committee.”

As long as these rules are observed, a minister should not be put in a position of attending a fundraiser with anyone who would actually benefit directly from the opportunity to bend his ear over microwaved hors d’oeuvres. No doubt some people who attend these fundraisers have plenty to say to the minister, but because the rules filter out people who have business with his department, the sort of quid-pro-quo corruption that is rampant in other countries is avoided. As a further protection, the Harper government banned corporate donations and capped individual donations (currently $1,500 per year). That may sound like a lot of money to an average Canadian, but it is nowhere near enough to “buy” action or an appointment from a minister or a government.

The endemic soft corruption of selling access and favours that is routine in Washington simply does not happen (anymore) in Ottawa.

Those two rules together — donation limits and excluding stakeholders from fundraisers —make our federal fundraising about as clean as fundraising anywhere in the world. The endemic soft corruption of selling access and favours that is routine in Washington, where I also worked for five years, simply does not happen (anymore) in Ottawa. That is something Canadians should know and celebrate.

How are the rules applied in practice? When I worked in the office of citizenship and immigration minister Jason Kenney, the staff insisted on reviewing the list of attendees before he attended any fundraiser. We did Internet searches on each person, searched departmental records of grants and grant applications going back as far as we could, and checked the lobbying registry. We then had each attendee sign a form saying they had no business with the department and did not anticipate having any.

Overall, the system worked well. Even the often frustratingly vague guidance from the commissioner probably helped, as it resulted in ministers’ offices erring on the side of caution and turning away possible attendees if there was any possibility the commissioner’s office could later decide the minister had been placed in a potential conflict of interest. When there were problems, it usually involved newer ministers and staff who were unfamiliar with the rules, or fundraisers organized by third parties who failed to communicate with the minister’s office. Neither should be an excuse. Education of new staff on ethics rules must be a priority, and the same protocols should apply to third-party events, even if it requires extra diligence from the staff.

If I could suggest one improvement to the current system, it would be that ministers’ offices should have to report each fundraiser directly to the commissioner’s office. The report should include copies of all invitations, a list of to whom they were sent, and a list of attendees. This requirement would help the commissioner do his or her job, and it would also be a helpful exercise for ministers and their staff and reinforce a culture of compliance.

These are the reasons why I objected to Don Martin and Robert Fife’s articles, which leave uniformed readers with the impression our federal political system is not nearly as clean as it is. There is no shortage of things in Ottawa to be concerned about but, contrary to the perception created by those (and other) articles, the issue of political fundraising is not high on the list. I don’t think I’m being naive about this — I was immersed in the very heart of this world for years, and I can honestly say I’ve never seen a ministerial decision made or a policy changed as a result of a fundraising event or a donation. Rather than worrying about Minister Morneau’s pained small-talk with a room of Haligonian businessmen, Canadians should worry about his borrowing and spending Canada into the poorhouse,

When journalists indulge in class-warrior editorializing about “wealthy” and “well-heeled” donors “rubbing elbows” with ministers, Canadians might easily confuse these events with Hillary Clinton’s scooping up $100,000 cheques at Malibu mansion mixers. The use of terms like “pay for play” or “pay for access” is particularly misleading, once you understand that those who want “play” from a minister aren’t allowed to pay for it and that the rules preclude “access” by people who could directly benefit from that minister’s decisions. These tabloid terms may be appropriate for fundraisers in Kathleen Wynne’s deeply compromised system, but  to employ that rhetoric to federal politics after the Federal Accountability Act is inaccurate.

How do I know that the current Liberal government is as scrupulous about observing the fundraising rules as we were? I don’t, of course, but I know that the commissioner’s office will be breathing down this government’s neck as they breathed down ours, and that while there may be missteps by new ministers and staff, the reputational costs of noncompliance are too high to play fast and loose with the Act for very long. This is especially true for the Liberal Party, whose notorious corruption during its last spell in Ottawa make it especially vulnerable to even the perception of conflicts of interest. That is probably why Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has imposed nonbinding guidelines for ministers that go even further than the Act. I don’t think these guidelines are necessary to prevent conflicts or unethical behaviour, but I understand why he thought it prudent to impose them.

I also know this: an irony of politics is that the people who have real influence don’t have to pay for it. The people that Morneau is really interested in hearing from are invited to his prebudget consultations and round tables during the day, not to the party fundraisers at night (and, for the reasons above, they probably aren’t allowed to attend those fundraisers, even if they wanted to). If the CEO of a Canadian bank or national corporation wants to meet with the Minister of Finance or his senior staff, all that is needed to get a meeting is a telephone call. The reporting of that meeting then falls under the purview of the lobbying commissioner and is disclosed publicly. No money is exchanged, only information and views. If some people see this as unequal access to power, I am sympathetic up to a point, but it is not related to the issues of fundraising or the influence of money in Canadian politics.

Journalists and opposition parties are right to criticize when Liberal ministers fail to abide by the informal rules Trudeau put in place, but in doing so they should be careful not to confuse access with improper access and genuine conflict of interest, if they don’t have hard evidence (if that evidence does exist, it isn’t cited in either of the articles that prompted this piece). Nor should critics imply that fundraising by ministers is inherently unethical.

As important as it is to vocally criticize what is wrong in our federal politics, it is equally important to defend what is right. I believe in our federal conflict of interest rules because I’ve seen them work in practice. I defend them — even knowing that there will be occasional violations, which should be publicized and punished — to ensure people know they exist and how well they work. Canadians deserve to have a glimmer of faith in at least one aspect of our federal politics.

Photo: jorome / Shutterstock.com

 


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