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Sure, blame the media

Justin Trudeau says he’s just following the rules by charging $1,525-a-person for his fundraisers, and says the media is “causing people concern.”

Blame the media for Justin Trudeau’s cash-for-access scandal, says Justin Trudeau

Justin Trudeau has been in power for just over a year, and he’s already come around to blaming the media for covering his “cash-for-access” fundraisers.

In a year-end interview with CTV News, Trudeau said that he is just following the rules by charging Canadians hefty sums of money for access to his government at behind-closed-doors Liberal Party fundraisers.

“All the rules are always being followed, that’s the thing — comments that media and the opposition make are causing people’s concerns,” Trudeau told chief anchor Lisa LaFlamme.

His government has had a rough ride in recent weeks, with a constant stream of stories being published about his and his ministers’ attendance at these fundraisers with deep-pocket supporters. Both main opposition parties have, meanwhile, hammered him in the House of Commons on the topic.

“There should be no preferential access to government, or appearance of preferential access, accorded to individuals or organizations because they have made financial contributions to politicians and political parties.”

Trudeau has repeated the same lines for weeks — riffing on the idea that Canada has very strict donation rules, and his party follows them.

VICE News reported in October that Trudeau and his cabinet had attended more than 100 cash-for-access fundraisers in 2016 alone, with Trudeau himself being responsible for 16 events, most of which cost $1,525-per-person.

When asked whether Trudeau had any more fundraisers planned this year, Liberal Party spokesperson Braeden Caley told VICE News that they did not — but added that the lack of events is “common for this time of year.”

And while Trudeau’s rhetoric around Canada’s electoral finance laws is correct — individuals can only donate $1,525 per year — his party tried to find a way around that limit, through the “Leader’s Circle,” a program through which Liberal supporters try to get others to donate the maximum. In the United States, it’s a tightly-regulated process called “bundling.”

The Liberal website clearly advertises that those in the leader’s circle “can look forward to a variety of recognition opportunities including an annual dinner with the Leader and invitations to events and discussions with leaders within the Party.”

But even the party seems to recognize that program is probably not good optics — when asked about that program, Caley said there have been no Leader’s Circle events in 2016.

All of Trudeau’s ministers were required to read, and sign off on, a set of guidelines that included instructions like “there should be no preferential access to government, or appearance of preferential access, accorded to individuals or organizations because they have made financial contributions to politicians and political parties.”

Mandate letters handed out to cabinet ministers also remind them that political journalists “are professionals who, by asking necessary questions, contribute in an important way to the democratic process. Your professionalism and engagement with them is essential.”

But under Trudeau’s own ethical guidelines, dubbed “Open and Accountable Government,” it reads that ministers and their staff “should not discuss departmental business at any fundraising event” and refer them to their office instead.

When Trudeau was asked, point-blank, whether he discussed government policy with top-tier donors, he told reporters that he’ll listen to anyone about “things that are important to them” before adding “in various Liberal Party events, I listen to people as I will in any given situation, but the decisions I take in government are ones based on what is right for Canadians and not on what an individual in a fundraiser might say.”

It came out last week that Conflict of Interest Commissioner Mary Dawson plans to interrogate Trudeau — and his pot czar, Bill Blair — over fundraisers they held with industry representatives that may have broken federal conflict of interest rules.

Trudeau is technically right that his fundraisers do not break any electoral finance or corruption law, but that is simply because the law is largely quiet on cabinet ministers’ political activities.

In Ontario, where Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne faced similar criticism, her party decided to ban the fundraisers altogether, banning all members of provincial parliament from attending political fundraisers.

In Quebec, where these sorts of fundraisers were used to propagate a decades-long collusion operation between the construction industry and politicians on the municipal level — this, according to a provincial inquiry into political corruption — the limit on provincial donations is now $100 per person, per year.

Trudeau has, thus far, refused calls to introduce new fundraising limits or rules.

Cover: Photo by Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

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