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The $1,500 question: Where did the Liberals’ transparency go?

In these straitened times, as journalism struggles to pay for itself, I've come to the conclusion there's only one way to ensure that you, the Canadian reader, continue to receive the quality commentary you've come to expect in this space.

Please consider this an invitation to my first fundraiser, an opportunity to gather, most likely at Swiss Chalet, and discuss the column topics you feel need addressing. In the full spirit of transparency and accountability, I cannot guarantee that I will actually write about any of these topics, or your grandson's fascinating new startup. But I will be there, eating my Festive Special, ready to listen. According to the guiding principles of the Columnists' Federation, entry is set at a reasonable $1,500, tax deductible, and payable in gift cards or Canadian Tire money.

"Transparency, accountability, principles," I know these are the phrases I must commit to memory because I've watched the Prime Minister repeat them over and over in response to Opposition questions about the Liberal fundraising controversy. This week Mr. Trudeau rose to his feet during Question Period, and mustered enough enthusiasm to repeat "transparency" and "strictest rules" until, like the poor, worn-out robot in a Star Trek episode, he was forced to sit down and take a break.

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Then, while he charged his batteries, House Leader Bardish Chagger stood up in his place. "Transparency," she intoned. "Accountability. What Canadians need to know. Principles. Rules. Followed." At least there's not a lot of script for her to memorize at the beginning of each Question Period. It's a bit like Groundhog Day, with all the jokes replaced by references to the Chief Electoral Officer.

The opposition is irate that the government is engaged in what it describes as variously as an "unethical shakedown," or "pay-for-play." Conservative MP John Brassard wonders, "When will the 'For Sale' sign be going up in front of the prime minister's office, if it hasn't already?"

The scandal, reported in the Globe by Robert Fife and Steven Chase, involves the Prime Minister and some cabinet ministers making themselves available, their ears primed for bending, at parties where the entrance fee is a $1,500 donation to the Liberal collection plate. This is explicitly a no-no according to the Liberals' own ethics guidelines, which state that "there should be no preferential access, or appearance of preferential access" in return for political contributions.

Even if the letter of the law is being followed, the preferential treatment awarded to certain people smells like a sewer pipe in July. The sleuth who follows the fundraising story will notice many clues peppered throughout the newspaper stories. The parties are invariably held at "the waterfront mansion of a mining tycoon" or the "mansion of a wealthy Chinese-Canadian business executive."

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Oddly, they never take place in a Legion hall or a Red Lobster or in the basement of a church. The partygoers – though that implies people gathered for the purpose of fun, rather than growing money – seem to range on the social scale from "billionaire" to "tycoon" to "magnate." The odd millionaire or retired senator slips onto the invitation list. Let us once again celebrate Canada's diversity!

The Prime Minister would have us believe that the fundraisers are conducted with the utmost "transparency," but until I see a YouTube video of one of these ragers I'm not sure I'll believe that no government business is discussed. (At least one guest has reported his personal lobbying attempts at a Liberal fundraiser.) On an even more sour note, Mr. Trudeau has suggested that no government can be bought for $1,500, the legal limit for an individual donation to a federal party.

Only someone who has never had to worry about money thinks that $1,500 is not a lot of money. It's a hell of a lot of money. I live in a province where some people – not the tycoons – are facing a choice between paying to heat their houses or paying for food. The Prime Minister lives in this province, too.

If you had an extra $1,500 at the end of the year, and it's a big if, would you perhaps buy your kids new bikes, or take them snowboarding for a few days, or would you choose to buy your way into a Liberal fundraiser? For the MTB (that's Magnate, Tycoon, Billionaire), it's not an issue. For most of Canada, it is.

Let's say you had that $1,500, and you wanted to get on the guest list, to see what these fundraisers are like. Maybe they serve unicorn cheese. Maybe no one talks about anything as grubby as money or power or how to get approval for their bank or who's up for what cabinet position. Maybe they talk about literacy programs and dance to The Temptations. But even if they did, how would we know, the non-MTB crowd? It's not like these invitations are tacked up on the bulletin board at Costco.

It sure looks like there's a fancy party going on, and the rest of the country is shivering outside, faces pressed against the window, like Heathcliff and Cathy in Wuthering Heights. Oh, wait, the shutter has been pulled down. So much for transparency. So much for sunny ways.

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About the Author
Columnist and Feature Writer

Elizabeth Renzetti has worked at The Globe and Mail as a columnist, reporter, and editor of the Books and Review sections. From 2003 to 2012, she was a member of the Globe's London-based European bureau. Her Saturday column is published on page A2 of the news section, and her features appear regularly in Focus. More

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