BY DERMOD TRAVIS
After 15 months on the job, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is embarking on a cross-Canada tour, ostensibly to reconnect with Canadians or at least those that can’t afford $1,525 to bend his ear in private.
It seems Trudeau – and other federal cabinet ministers – have a fondness for political fundraising events held behind closed doors, far away from prying eyes.
In political slang better known as cash-for-access, not to be confused with its kissing cousin pay-to-play.
When news of Trudeau’s private dinners broke in November – first reported on by The Tyee – the prime minister assured Canadians that nothing untoward was taking place.
Little more than dumpling making demonstrations, as Trudeau is seen doing in a number of photos from a Toronto dinner last May.
Everything was peachy-keen as far as the prime minister was concerned, until one host spilled the beans.
In November, when Trudeau was in the Lower Mainland to announce his five-year, $1.5 billion ocean protection plan, there was a $1,525 cash-for-access event on his private itinerary.
Unpublicized at the time, Trudeau broke bread at the home of Miaofei Pan, a Vancouver property developer.
Shock of all shocks, some of the 80 guests saw the dinner as an opportunity to talk shop with the prime minister.
Up for discussion that night was the proposed acquisition of Vancouver-based Retirement Concepts, a chain of retirement homes believed to be worth more than $1 billion, by China’s Anbang Insurance Group.
If Anbang’s bid is approved by the federal government it would become a major service provider to B.C.’s health ministry.
It wasn’t long before calls for an investigation by federal ethics commissioner Mary Dawson – who had already called cash-for-access “not very savoury” – started flying across Ottawa.
Last month – still labouring under the mistaken impression that everything is on the up-and-up with these fundraisers – Trudeau told the Vancouver Sun editorial board that one just had to use Google to find a list of names of those in attendance.
Not so. Both The Tyee and Globe and Mail have requested the names from the prime minister’s office and the Liberal party of Canada without success.
Paradoxically, the federal Liberal party returned donations from the Cannabis Friendly Business Association after representatives of the group attended a reception last spring with Trudeau’s point person on pot, Bill Blair.
All to avoid any misconceptions that the event violated the government’s own ethics guidelines that advise cabinet ministers and parliamentary secretaries to avoid an “appearance of preferential access.”
But then it is easier to refund a handful of $150 tickets, than it is to return $1,525 to each of 80 ticket holders.
Lost in the federal kerfuffle are some upcoming cash-for-access events in B.C. with Premier Christy Clark.
At three times his going rate of $1,525, the prime minister would still be a bargain compared to Clark.
In December Agriculture minister Norm Letnick sent out a private email to what he called “leaders such as yourself,” offering 21 individuals “an outstanding dinner experience” with Clark on January 26 for all of $5,000 a plate.
Too rich for your blood? Letnick had another “outstanding dinner experience” to offer with backbench MLA Linda Larson for a mere $2,500.
One frequent participant at these exclusive dinners is Toronto-based Borealis Infrastructure, a subsidiary of the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System.
At least they’re upfront about their motivation in buying tickets, noting in their official policy that “Participation in the political process may be directly relevant to minimizing risk and achieving (our) investment objectives.”
B.C. NDP leader John Horgan isn’t immune to intimate evenings with well-heeled donors either.
In November, the party charged up to $10,000 a head at its resource industry dinner.
Only B.C. Green party leader Andrew Weaver refuses to attend or host cash-for-access events.
The B.C. Liberal party held 142 fundraising events in 2015, the NDP 46 and the Greens one.
But there’s a far cry between the Green party’s $10 film screening in Kelowna, the NDP’s $50 belt it out for equality karaoke night and the $10,000 that 10 guests paid to share dinner with Clark at the home of Simon Fraser University chancellor Anne Giardini.
Dermod Travis is the executive director of IntegrityBC. www.integritybc.ca