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Liberal efforts to shed light on cash-for-access bashes panned by Tories, NDP

Last Updated Jan 27, 2017 at 5:40 pm EST

OTTAWA – With Parliament’s return looming, the Trudeau Liberals promised Friday to shine the light of public scrutiny on their so-called “cash-for-access” fundraisers — but critics quickly denounced the proposals as superficial window-dressing.

The Liberals promised legislation that would require cabinet ministers, party leaders and leadership candidates to publicly advertise their fundraisers in advance, and release a report after the fact with details of the event.

The timing of the news appeared designed to cut the legs out from under Conservative and NDP plans to crank up the question-period pressure on Trudeau and the Liberal government when the House of Commons returns Monday.

The proposed new law, if passed, would also require events to take place in publicly available spaces, a move designed to address concerns about well-heeled donors bending the ears of cabinet ministers in private homes.

“We believe in providing Canadians with more open, transparent information about political fundraising that involves cabinet ministers, party leaders and leadership candidates,” Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould said in a statement.

“We will bring forward a plan to do just that.”

Other measures might follow after talks with opposition parties, but the government was coy about what those could be, the timing of the legislation, and how much detail Canadians will receive in public reports.

Critics waved off the move as little more than a diversion. NDP Leader Tom Mulcair called it a “cynical game to distract from Liberals helping themselves.”

The proposed legislation won’t end the ethical questions facing Trudeau over selling access to himself and his ministers, Conservative interim leader Rona Ambrose vowed as her party wrapped up a caucus meeting in Quebec City.

The group Democracy Watch called the move a “charade,” saying the proposals would just push the fundraisers into other forums like thank-you events for top donors.

Ottawa has for months been seized with talk of so-called cash-for-access fundraisers, which allow would-be donors to pay as much as $1,500 to privately rub shoulders with ministers or even Trudeau himself.

The practice doesn’t necessarily violate political fundraising or ethics rules — so long as ministers aren’t lobbied on issues, something Trudeau has acknowledged in the past does happen from time to time.

Federal financing rules, including disclosure requirements and caps on donations, prevent conflicts of interest from arising, the prime minister insists.

The fundraisers also appeared to contradict Trudeau’s own guidelines for ethical government conduct, which stipulate that “there should be no preferential access or appearance of preferential access” in exchange for political donations.

Allowing media to attend fundraising events or holding them in public places won’t address the main issue, said Ambrose: selling influence.

“It’s asking people to pay to meet with government officials to discuss government business,” she said. “That’s the issue and for some reason he (Trudeau) hasn’t seen a problem with that.”

Mulcair, meanwhile, urged the Liberals to return the money they’ve already raised through private fundraisers.

The federal ethics commissioner has pushed Parliament to make fundraising rules more stringent for cabinet ministers and parliamentary secretaries. The NDP plan to introduce legislation of their own next week that would give the ethics commissioner the power to investigate cash-for-access events.

There’s a great deal more the Liberals could be doing to improve transparency, said Christopher Cotton, director of the John Deutsch Institute for the Study of Economic Policy at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.

He said the proposals also don’t address another issue: event organizers who could use their ability to bring together a number of deep-pocketed donors as a way to influence government policy.

“That’s the bigger worry that I have with these cash-for-access events,” Cotton said.

“It isn’t that those that attend get to meet the politicians, it’s that those organizing it and those running these events end up contributing more in the aggregate to the campaigns than could be.”

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