An elite group comprising less than one per cent of federal Liberal supporters gave the maximum-allowed contribution of $1,500 to the party last year – statistics that appear to contradict the Trudeau government's assertion that fundraisers with big-ticket prices are not exclusive affairs.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's governing party has come under repeated fire the past two weeks after reports in The Globe and Mail about how Canadians are being asked to pay as much as $1,500 a ticket for privileged time with Liberal cabinet ministers in charge of key spending and policy decisions.
The Liberals insist that even fundraisers where the ticket price was $1,500 are not exclusive events but instead "available to anybody who wanted to purchase a ticket."
Few Canadians, however, dug deep enough to make $1,500 donations to the Liberals in 2015.
Elections Canada records provided by the agency to The Globe reveal only 790 people, or 0.85 per cent of the 93,429 individual contributors to the Liberals, gave $1,500 to the party in 2015. This was an election year that saw Mr. Trudeau sweep to power with a strong majority.
Elections Canada records also show only 522 contributors to the Liberal Party of Canada in 2014 maxed out their donation to the party. That's equivalent to 0.68 per cent of all 77,064 contributors to the Liberal Party in 2014. In 2015, the donation limit to political parties was $1,500 and in 2014 it was $1,200.
The Liberal donations for 2015 largely came in when they were the third party in the House of Commons. Nonetheless, the Trudeau Liberals still managed to rake in $7.3-million during the third quarter of that year. That was a record for Liberals but still behind Tories who raised just more than $10-million from July 1 to Sept. 30.
"Not everybody has access. But certainly the people who are willing to pay $1,500 apiece seem to have unlimited access and it is a very small, elite group of people who have access to this government at that ticket price," Conservative MP Blaine Calkins told The Globe.
Among the exclusive fundraisers that have drawn fire are an Oct. 13 event in Halifax with Finance Minister Bill Morneau as the main draw. That night about 15 corporate executives donated $1,500 each to the Liberal Party for private access with the key Trudeau cabinet member as he prepares his second budget.
These events appear to contravene Mr. Trudeau's Open and Accountable Government ethics rules, which he unveiled to much fanfare last November, that state "there should be no preferential access or appearance of preferential access" in exchange for political donations.
"It's really a marginal fraction of the population who can afford that, but it looks like for the Liberals if the price is right, you can have access to a minister," NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice said in an interview.
Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson has called these cash-for-access fundraisers "unsavoury" and federal lobbying commissioner Karen Shepherd is investigating what she called "pay-for-access" Liberal fundraisers. The federal Liberals' special access events are not in line with the Ontario Liberal government, which recently announced it is bringing in new rules to ban such fundraising activities on Jan. 1, 2017.
Separately, the Liberal Party, through a lawyer's letter to The Globe, this past Friday, said it is a mischaracterization to say that Ms. Shepherd is investigating whether senior Trudeau cabinet ministers have breached the Lobbying Act. "The lobbying commissioner does not have the jurisdiction nor the mandate under the Lobbying Act to investigate ministers of the Crown," lawyer Linda Rothstein, acting for the Liberal Party, wrote to The Globe.
"[The lobbying commissioner's] mandate is to investigate allegations of improper conduct by lobbyists, not public office holders."
The Prime Minister has defended these cash-for-access fundraisers by arguing that financial donation limits in federal politics are too low for donors to buy influence with his cabinet ministers.
Former Liberal deputy prime minister Sheila Copps says private, elite fundraisers offer an opportunity for people doing business with the government to make a pitch to a senior minister.
"You go and you get an envelope, 'I need this, I want this, I want this.' It was like the worst part of the job," said Ms. Copps, who described what it was like during the Chrétien years and why the former prime minister decided to bring in publicly funded subsidies for political parties.
Ms. Copps said Mr. Trudeau should ban elite fundraisers and hold big-ticket events in the open. She said the government should also consider returning to the system imposed by the Chrétien Liberals in 2004 whereby Parliament helped fund elections with per-vote subsidies for political parties. The Harper government eliminated this funding in 2011.
In a statement to The Globe and Mail, Liberal Party president Anna Gainey argued that "people come before special interests" when it comes to Trudeau ministerial fundraising.
"These are engaged and committed citizens seeking to support candidates they believe in, not people who are seeking or receiving special access," she said, pointing out that 330,456 Canadians donated to the Liberal, Conservative and New Democratic parties in 2015, up from 115,908 in 2004.
Ms. Gainey made no mention of the Prime Minister's Open and Accountable Government rulebook. Instead, she repeated the line the government has used since The Globe exposed the cash-for-access fundraisers that the Liberal Party is following election financing laws that limit individual donations to party and riding association to $3,050 annually.
"We can be grateful that our fundraising hasn't been pushed to the backrooms, and that our elected MPs campaign with some of the strongest political fundraising rules you can find," she wrote.
She went on to argue that the Liberals are doing the same as the former Conservative government did in playing host to exclusive $1,500 events for wealthy donors, even though Mr. Trudeau promised that he would be different.
"Conservatives like Joe Oliver, Lisa Raitt, Jason Kenney, Kellie Leitch and Chris Alexander all joined their party for an extensive series of fundraising events ranging up to $1,500 per person – and those events have continued with Rona Ambrose as their interim leader," she said.
In the House of Commons this past Wednesday, the Prime Minister offered a new line of defence for the Liberals cash-for-access system, arguing that some provinces have virtually no limits on party donations.
"The fact is there are still jurisdictions in Canada that have no limits on personal donations, that allow corporate developers and allow unions to donate," he said. "We have a system that has very strict limits on personal donations and total transparency."
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair fired back at the Prime Minister, saying the Liberal Leader was wrong to pretend that the special access events are the same as regular fundraisers where ordinary Canadians pay $50 to $100.
"Let's be clear we are not talking about a spaghetti dinner in a church basement. We're talking about selling privileged access to a federal minister to the very wealthy," he said.
The style of fundraising has been controversial this year at the provincial level. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne unveiled campaign reforms after The Globe revealed that corporations and lobbyists paid thousands of dollars for exclusive ministerial access. B.C. Premier Christy Clark faced complaints for attending similar events.
Records provided by the Liberal Party show Mr. Trudeau has been the star attraction at 14 fundraisers so far this year where the ticket price was as high as $1,525. These took place across Canada, from the affluent Montreal suburb of Westmount, Que., to the Greater Toronto Area to Vancouver, Calgary and London, Ont.
The Prime Minister was also the headliner at a Surrey, B.C. fundraiser in March where the ticket price was $1,000. In addition, Mr. Trudeau participated in two "appreciation" events for members of the Laurier Club who donate $1,500 annually or monthly increments that reach that amount.
Mr. Morneau was the main draw at four fundraisers so far this year where the ticket prices ran as high as $1,525. He was also the guest of honour at a Montreal-area fundraiser for a Liberal riding association where the ticket price was $1,000.
Mr. Morneau appears to be among the busiest Liberal ministers when it comes to fundraising. He has held about 20 events this year that have already taken place or are currently planned. (Mr. Trudeau runs a close second with 17 events on the list provided by the Liberals.)
Depending on the minister and the location, maximum ticket prices varied. One fundraiser for the riding of Churchill held in Winnipeg, for example, and featuring Mr. Morneau, had a maximum ticket price of only $200.
Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains was the top guest at a Vancouver fundraiser in September where the ticket price was $1,500. A riding fundraiser in Edmonton that he also headlined a few days earlier had a maximum ticket price of $50.
In all, the Liberals, either at the federal party or riding association level, have held 89 fundraisers this year where ministers are guests. More are planned for the weeks ahead. About 30 of the listed occasions are "appreciation events" for Laurier Club donors – the biggest givers. They don't have to pay for them if they have already maxed out their donation.
Liberal Party spokesman Braedan Caley said MPs, riding associations and other party wings hold fundraisers independently of the national organization and those wouldn't be captured in the list the party prepared for media.
He noted: "Mr. Trudeau and all Liberal MPs have also been the guest speakers at hundreds of free outreach events across Canada this year" and the Liberal government is currently holding 83 consultations "open to the public at no cost."