Majority of Canadians surveyed object to Liberals’ cash-for-access fundraisers

by Robert Fife and Steven Chase

A new poll shows a significant majority of Canadians disapprove of the Liberal Party’s controversial cash-for-access fundraisers as the governing party is gearing up to collect $1-million in more-conventional contributions from donors in December alone.

A Nanos public-opinion survey, conducted for The Globe and Mail from Nov. 26 to 30, shows that 62 per cent of Canadians disapprove of the Liberal Party’s practice of charging people $1,500 a ticket to meet in private with Mr. Trudeau and senior cabinet ministers who oversee major spending or policy-making decisions.

Only 33 per cent of Canadians surveyed approve of these pay-to-play fundraisers. The Nanos survey of 1,000 Canadians is considered accurate within 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

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“Average Canadians would think that this would not jibe with the image that the Liberals want to project as a party of the middle class, a party that is principled,” Nik Nanos said in an interview. “It just makes people feel very uncomfortable when they see these types of donations in terms of the optics, regardless of whether they influence the Prime Minister or not.”

Mr. Trudeau has been facing a daily barrage of questions in the House of Commons over a series of cash-for-access fundraisers that appear to mix government business with partisan efforts to fill party coffers. He has so far refused to put an end to the practice, even as some Liberal MPs are privately saying the controversy is harming the Liberal brand and Mr. Trudeau’s reputation for integrity.

“This is really hurting us and it’s not necessary,” said one senior Liberal MP, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being censured. Another MP, who also requested anonymity, said: “It’s not worth the price and conflicts with our pledge of being more ethical than the Harper Conservatives.”

The Prime Minister has said that only cynics would think that his ministers could be bought for the price of a $1,500 ticket. The Nanos survey suggests Canadians are almost evenly divided on that point.

The Nanos poll showed 48 per cent of Canadians believe a donor paying $1,500 could influence Mr. Trudeau’s decision-making while 46 per cent do not think the donation is enough to sway the Prime Minister.

“There is a dose of reality in the poll in terms of realistically how much influence anyone can have on the Prime Minister, but I think what the poll shows is that Canadians think these types of donations are unsavoury,” Mr. Nanos said.

The Liberals’ aggressive fundraising appears to be paying off since they formed government a year ago. Between July and September of this year, the Liberals edged out the Conservatives in fundraising, taking in $3.2-million compared with $3.1-million for the Tories – the first time that this has happened in more than a decade. The Conservatives were in a majority-government position during most of that time.

In December alone, the Liberal Party announced an “ambitious goal” to raise $1-million that it says will come from ordinary donations – from as low as $5 to as much as $200 – and not from high-priced fundraisers featuring top cabinet ministers. The deadline to hit this amount is Dec. 15.

“That goal is specifically for grassroots online donations, which has been a leading area of growth in support for the party,” Liberal Party spokesman Braeden Caley said in an e-mail. “More than 2,509 grassroots Canadians have contributed to the Liberal Party of Canada online in the last week alone.”

“The Liberal Party of Canada and our volunteers have already hosted over 100 events this fall,” Mr. Caley said. “Among those events, between October 15 and [Dec. 10], our records show that there have been 18 fundraising events in communities across Canada where the special guest was a Liberal MP who also serves as a minister.”

The Liberals will not say how much money is being raised from cash-for-access receptions. Attendance figures suggest the party brings in between $50,000 to $120,000 per event when either Mr. Trudeau or Finance Minister Bill Morneau is the star attraction at $1,500-per-ticket receptions.

Mr. Caley didn’t say how many pay-to-play fundraisers Mr. Trudeau attended but noted he participated in three Laurier Club “appreciation events” in Vancouver, Toronto and Ottawa for people who donate $1,500 to the party. This allows Laurier Club members to have special cocktail receptions with Mr. Trudeau and other ministers.

As the fundraisers have begun to dominate the House Question Period, it has become more difficult to glean details of fundraisers involving Mr. Trudeau or his ministers. Mr. Trudeau’s events are not posted on the party website and the Prime Minister’s Office makes no mention of them in its daily report on his official activities.

Mr. Trudeau has repeatedly told the Commons that his government is committed to the “principles of openness, transparency and accountability [that] are necessary for public trust in our institutions” in regard to Liberal fundraising activities.

The Conservative and NDP parties have written formal complaints to Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson and Lobbying Commissioner Karen Shepherd, demanding investigations into Liberal fundraising practices. They allege some of the events violate lobbying laws and the Conflict of Interest Code.

The fundraisers appear to breach Mr. Trudeau’s own government guidelines that say “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.”

The opposition leaders have brought up example after example of pay-to-play events where donors raised government issues with Mr. Trudeau or other cabinet ministers and parliamentary secretaries. The events appear to violate the Liberal Party’s pledge that “fundraising events are partisan functions, where we do not discuss government business.”

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