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Like Trudeau, Liberal MPs just want fundraising controversy to end

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau answers a question in the House of Commons on Tuesday.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Liberal MPs are saying two kinds of things about the cash-for-access fundraisers that are embarrassing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. One is that there's no real problem. The other is that there's no real problem and something has to be done about it pretty darn soon.

If Mr. Trudeau is listening to the realists in his caucus, you can expect his government will soon find some new stratagem to deal with this political liability.

Mr. Trudeau's government has hunkered down until now in the hopes of getting some respite over Parliament's Christmas break. But it will not want the same narrative in the New Year. So it will probably be working on a way to divert it, perhaps by enlisting the opposition in a process to set new fundraising rules and shifting some of the problem onto the Conservatives and the NDP.

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Read more: Justin Trudeau says he uses cash-for-access fundraisers to champion the middle class

Elizabeth Renzetti: The $1,500 question: Where did the Liberals' transparency go?

Most Liberal MPs, of course, have been around politics. Like most people, they do not see themselves as dishonest. They have been going to fundraisers for years. They cannot be bought for $1,500, they think. What's the problem?

Maybe that is why Mr. Trudeau and his ministers were slow to see the problem with attending small fundraisers in private homes where people who paid $1,500 a pop could raise government business with senior decision-makers.

Some Liberal MPs say they do not see a problem now. B.C. Liberal MP Joyce Murray noted that when she was a provincial minister, parties could accept donations from anyone for any amount – but the federal system is "very restrictive," with donations limited to $1,500. She said politicians would not be swayed by that, so there's no violation of Trudeau government guidelines that say ministers should not attend events that create an appearance that donors received preferential access. "I don't see a problem," she said.

Kenora MP Bob Nault, who was Indian affairs minister under Jean Chrétien, noted politicians have always gone to fundraisers. "We had chiefs in the room. They would hand you a letter, and you would pass it on to staff," he said. He added that enough checks and balances are in place.

Ms. Murray and Mr. Nault said they are not hearing many people talk about the fundraisers in their ridings. It is mostly in the Ottawa bubble.

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On the other hand, the government will not want this to go on. "I think this has stimulated a discussion, because it put the government into a narrative that suggests something isn't right," Mr. Nault said. "I don't think this government wants to be in that position for very long."

Maybe, Mr. Nault suggested, the government will ask an all-party committee to look at new fundraising rules. Or perhaps a debate on returning to a per-vote taxpayer subsidy, as federal parties had from 2004 to 2015. At any rate, he said, if the opposition is raising such a stink about politicians going to fundraisers, he would like to hear what they propose instead.

You would have to think that will seem like a good idea to other Liberal MPs, too – letting the opposition parties suggest rules on politicians attending fundraisers. The Conservatives and NDP do not have cabinet ministers, but both have leadership races with cash-starved candidates.

Some Liberal MPs expect something like that. They think Mr. Trudeau circled the wagons to get to the calm of Parliament's Christmas break, which began on Wednesday. Now, they will try to find a new tactic – maybe new fundraising rules, maybe a new process for establishing new rules, maybe a committee, but something.

Even if constituents are not deluging MPs with complaints, some Liberals are chattering about potential damage to the brand. They see the fundraisers open the door for cynicism about the government. In the Commons, interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose is having fun accusing Mr. Trudeau of selling out the middle class for Chinese billionaires, and rubbing the controversy in the faces of the MPs behind him.

"It's actually embarrassing to his Liberal caucus, who has to sit through all of this," she said on Wednesday. Some of those Liberal MPs say it is no problem. But they do not really want to endure more of it next year.

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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