Fundraising changes should not be enough to satisfy critics

  • National Newswatch

There must have been high-fives around Prime Minister Trudeau's office on Friday morning as his staff read the media coverage of the government's proposed changes to federal fundraising rules.This was the CBC headline: “Federal Liberals to tighten rules around cash-for-access fundraisers”.Even better was the headline above the fold on the front page of the Globe and Mail, where Bob Fife and Steve Chase have been flaying the Liberals over dubious fundraising for months: “Trudeau to end controversial cash-for-access fundraisers”.Political issues management departments live for coverage like this. Issue? Managed.But below the headlines, details of the government's plan tell a very different story: the substance of the federal conflict of interest rules remain untouched. There will be no change as to who can attend a fundraiser with a federal minister or the prime minister himself and no change to the $1,500-a-head top ticket price. The gushing headlines got it exactly wrong: the rules are not tightening and the “controversial cash-for-access” fundraisers need not end.As reported in the Globe and Mail, the new proposals range from superficial to irrelevant. In future, political fundraisers must be held at public venues rather than at private homes or clubs.  This is an odd requirement.  What does it matter if a $1,500 fundraiser is held at a golf club or in a hotel ballroom?  It is the invitation and the ticket price that make a political event exclusive, not the venue.The other two proposals are new reporting requirements.  Once the new rules come into force, fundraisers will have to be publicized in advance and parties will have to disclose information about the event, including attendance and the total amount raised, after.  The second proposal might actually be useful.  Knowing who paid to attend fundraisers with ministers will help the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner police the existing rules, which prohibit persons who have business with a government department or agency paying to attend a fundraiser with the responsible minister.  But because the Commissioner can already request this information from parties, the change merely makes automatic the disclosure of information that is already available for the asking. A procedural tweak, at best.These cosmetic changes are consistent with Trudeau's defence of his government's fundraising activities to date.  In the face of criticism from both the media and the opposition over so-called "cash for access" fundraisers, Trudeau has insisted that the government complies with the existing laws and that those laws are sufficient to prevent conflicts of interest.  While only scrutiny of the attendance at each fundraiser can confirm the former, on the latter point Trudeau is broadly correct.Canada's federal fundraising laws are as clean as any in the world.  Corporate and union donations are strictly prohibited and the maximum annual donation limit of $1,550 is the lowest in the world.  This limit means that, unlike in the United States, no single donor is important enough to influence a governmental decision.  When this low annual donation limit is combined with the existing prohibition against stakeholders and lobbyists attending fundraisers with the ministers of the departments with which they have official business, the potential for real conflicts of interest is almost zero.The strength of the existing rules may explain why Trudeau did not consider it necessary to make substantive changes to them, yet he obviously felt pressure to make changes of some kind.  Hence the nugatory tinkering announced with such fanfare: a perception of change to counter the perception of a problem.Will it be enough to mollify his critics?  It shouldn't be.  If you believe there is something wrong with the sort of $1,500-a-ticket fundraisers that Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau have been attending, then these new measures are a great big raspberry directed at you.  Real reform to address criticism would have either banned ministers from attending fundraisers altogether or imposed low per-event ticket limits to eliminate the perception of exclusive access for wealthy donors.  Trudeau did neither.Instead, he has bet that he can confound his critics and placate the public by appearing to do something, while in fact doing as little as possible and nothing of significance.  It is an audacious gamble, but on the strength of the first credulous media coverage, it appears to be paying off.  Let's hope Canadians are smart enough to read beyond the headlines.Howard Anglin served as Senior Advisor, Legal Affairs and Policy, and as Deputy Chief of Staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper from May 2013 to October 2015, in which roles he oversaw conflict of interest and ethics compliance within the PMO.