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Trudeau still has time to learn from Clinton’s fundraising mistakes

A lot of Canadians are worried about whether someone like Donald Trump could become prime minister. Given that political trends can cross borders as easily as acid rain, it's not impossible. Kellie Leitch sure is giving it the old college try. But the rise of Mr. Trump is only half the story of America's sudden political upheaval. The other half is the collapse of Hillary Clinton.

If I were Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, I'd be carefully considering what made Ms. Clinton toxic for so many voters. A lot of it was about the economy. Much of it was out of her control. But some of it was her own handiwork. Exhibit A: Her fundraising, and that of the Clinton Foundation, the latter featuring foreign donors and vague but suspicious connections running from government to the foundation and back again.

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The parallels with recent revelations about Mr. Trudeau and his party are hard to miss. Donors writing cheques in return for face-time with senior politicians? Check. The appearance of conflict of interest? Check. A foundation bearing Mr. Trudeau's name, with relationships to his family and his government, raising money from foreign donors? Check. And all of it legal? Almost certainly, and almost certainly irrelevant.

The amounts of cash involved are far smaller in Canada than in the United States because our political fundraising laws really are stricter than those down south. That's been one of Mr. Trudeau's defences and he's not entirely wrong. But regardless of the amounts, the principles at stake are the same, as are the dangers for the Prime Minister. For a political leader, public trust is the oxygen of elected life. You can't survive without it.

A lot of U.S. voters came to believe Ms. Clinton represented corruption in politics. The charge was hugely overblown, and relative to Mr. Trump, who loudly celebrates his conflicts of interest, it was absurd. But it had something to it and it stuck.

Mr. Trudeau can take steps to eliminate the possibility of voters buying such a charge, or he can let the material with which to build a case mount up.

To eliminate the problem, the PM would have to do two things. First, change the rules around political fundraising, removing the temptation to sell political access. And second, remove himself, his family and the Government of Canada from the operations of the Trudeau Foundation. Make the perception of conflict of interest impossible by eliminating the possibility of actual conflict.

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Thanks to former prime ministers Jean Chrétien and Stephen Harper, unions and corporations are already banned from donating to federal politicians, and individuals are limited to a combined total contribution to parties and candidates of just over $3,000 a year. But that's still a lot of money, which is why access can still be sold. Dropping the maximum donation to just $100 would fix that. It would put cash-for-access out of business.

Then there's the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation. Because the former PM's son is now the current PM – not something anticipated back in 2001 – the foundation's unorthodox, public-private partnership structure raises the potential for conflicts of interest. The only victim of any public perception of a conflict would be the Prime Minister himself.

The foundation was created by Mr. Chrétien, who gave it $125-million of taxpayer money. But the Trudeau family were given an ongoing say in its governance, including seats on the board. (Mr. Trudeau stepped aside several years ago; his brother remains.) The Industry Ministry, whose minister serves at the PM's pleasure, also nominates board members. And the foundation, despite its wealth, seeks private donations. Earlier this year, two Chinese businessmen donated $200,000; one of them, who has met with Mr. Trudeau, is president of the China Cultural Industry Association, which is overseen by China's government. Is this illegal? No. But it looks terrible. And fixing it would be easy.

To avoid even the perception of conflict of interest, Mr. Trudeau can announce that the foundation will have no connection to him, his family or his government. That means no family or government appointees. Make it clear that the foundation's work is entirely about the former PM's legacy – and has no connection to the current PM.

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