Cash for access.
It was a major issue in the US presidential election this year, when it was revealed that more than half of the people who had meetings with Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State also made donations to the Clinton Foundation. There may have been nothing illegal about that, but it did look ethically dubious.
Now Canada has its own version of this scandal. The cash amounts may be lesser, but the principle is the same. Our Prime Minster is answering (or mostly not answering) questions about his discussions at Liberal Party fundraisers and donations to his family Foundation.
The Party said he never discussed government business at such events with people who paid $1500 to mingle with him. Then he admitted he does discuss it, but the discussions don’t influence him. Which if true, is sure to disappoint those who have parted with their cash for a private, informal meeting with the Prime Minister.
The government insists that they are open and transparent and operate within the rules. Liberals are all honest, they tell us. So if the Prime Minister says he has done nothing wrong, that’s the end of it. Nothing to see here, move along please. Ethics? We followed the rules. They say they aren’t doing anything different than the other parties.
But they are.
As I watched the situation unfold this week I remembered a mostly forgotten event, a political fundraiser I attended about a decade ago.
Unlike the pricy events the current Prime Minister graces with his presence, this one was priced at $100, if my memory is correct. Certainly not more than $150. The idea was to price it so that ordinary people who were interested in politics could afford to attend.
The draw was two senior Conservative cabinet ministers. Tickets were limited in number. The idea was that you might actually get to have a real conversation with these leaders, something that doesn’t usually happen during election campaigns when such events are free.
I was looking forward to meeting both men, but, as it turned out, only one showed up. The official reason for the no-show was that one Minister had been unavoidably detained. That that was a polite fiction.
In Canada, political contributions are tax deductible. For a fundraising event the cost of food and hall rental are deducted from the ticket price and tax receipts issued for the remainder. What that means is that every ticket sold has a name attached to it so receipts can be issued. And that is why one cabinet minister didn’t show up.
Shortly before the event started, a ministerial aide showed up and looked at the ticket sales records. One name stood out for him. He pointed at it and said “If he is here, the Minister will not be.”
It wasn’t negotiable. The man on the guest list was, a registered lobbyist for a company dealing with the Minister’s department. There was a lot of money involved, more than $500 million. There was no way the Minister would attend a function where a lobbyist could bring up that file. It wouldn’t look right.
I was a little surprised and at the time didn’t see it as that big a deal. What harm if the Minister is there? Just make sure there are witnesses to any conversation to ensure no government business is discussed.
I realize now though that it was the right thing to do. Part of behaving ethically in government is not allowing yourself to be placed in compromising situations.
Apparently the current Prime Minister doesn’t understand that.