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The price Trudeau pays for failing to address cash-for-access scandal

The Trudeau government has suffered serious, sustained damage to its credibility, all because it ignored the Rhodes maxim.

That is why you will long remember the cash-for-access fundraising scandal, even though you long ago forgot all about the Dionne affair.

To explain: The Dionne quintuplets became an international sensation as soon as they were born, on May 28, 1934. No quintuplets had ever survived more than a few days after birth; people hungry for a distraction in the midst of the Depression latched onto these cute, healthy children of poor Franco-Ontarian parents. The Ontario government cruelly removed the children from their mother and turned them into a tourist attraction. The sisters suffered ever-after from the trauma of their fishbowl upbringing.

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In 1997, the three surviving quintuplets told the media that the trust fund set up in their name was exhausted and they were living in poverty. Ontario's former attorney-general, Charles Harnick, was unsympathetic, saying the present government should not be held responsible for the actions of a past government.

But the public still felt great guilt over how the Dionnes had been exploited, and premier Mike Harris came under immediate attack. After some hemming and hawing, he flew to Montreal where the Dionnes lived, bringing a cake baked by his wife, Janet, a cheque for $4-million and the promise of an inquiry into where the trust-fund money had gone. Almost immediately, the Dionnes and their plight disappeared from the news.

Years later, I asked Paul Rhodes, who was Mr. Harris's first press secretary, how the premier's office had managed to defuse the potentially damaging issue so quickly. (Mr. Rhodes had advised the government on handling the affair, though by then he had left to set up his own business.) He replied that whenever a controversy arose, he employed a maxim: "Ask yourself: 'How will this end?' Go there." The Dionne affair was always going to end with a cheque and an apology. Better to provide it sooner rather than later.

Of course, Mr. Harris and his advisers could have ignored Mr. Rhodes' advice. We can only speculate on how much damage the premier's reputation would have suffered, as the Dionne affair dominated the House and the headlines, derailing his government's agenda.

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Justin Trudeau has been plagued for weeks by the cash-for-access affair, in which donors paid $1,500 a ticket to attend private gatherings with the Prime Minister, where they talked about nursing-home business deals, immigrant investing and no doubt much else besides. These fundraising events, at the least, blatantly contradict Mr. Trudeau's own published guidelines: "There should be no preferential access to government, or appearance of preferential access" for people who donate to the party.

Without so much as a toe to stand on, Mr. Trudeau had a choice: Fess up and take steps to ensure such a conflict of interest never happened again, or stonewall. He has chosen to stonewall, refusing in Question Period and at news conferences even to directly address the contradictions between his rules and his actions.

The Prime Minister's strategists appeared to believe that the best approach was to hunker down and wait for the House to rise for its winter break. By the time MPs return at the end of January, they must be calculating, all will have been forgotten.

They're wrong. Mr. Trudeau campaigned on a promise of open, honest and accountable government. But the cash-for-access affair paints him as just another pol with his hand out. Voters don't forget such things. Opposition politicians make sure they don't.

Had the Liberals employed the Rhodes maxim – "How will this end? Go there" – they would have quickly realized that the best way out of this mess was to promise new regulations banning ministerial attendance at private fundraising events.

Instead of weeks of corrosive allegations of sleaze, the government would be seen to have learned a hard lesson and acted on it. The new rules might even have helped the Prime Minister's image.

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It isn't too late to employ the Rhodes maxim. But the Liberals appear to prefer the alternative: hunker down, take the hit and hope the bad news eventually goes away.

It's a classic strategy, employed most often by governments that are on their way to defeat.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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