Commentary – In politics, rules and ethics represent opposing concepts

Tom Henihan
Last November, with much self-righteous bluster, Prime Minister Trudeau announced his Open and Accountable Government ethics rules saying there should be no special access to federal ministers or any perception of special access in exchange for political donations.

A year later, instead of making every effort to make those ideals manifest in terms of practice and perception, the prime minister is now saying his party is doing no wrong in holding $1,500 per person fundraisers that award access to key ministers as door prizes.

Trudeau has forfeited the spirit of his high ideals and fallen back on the letter of the law, saying there are clear rules concerning fundraising and that it is impossible for any individual to donate more than $1,500 per year to a federal party and that due to those restrictions money does not influence political decisions.

“The rules in place ensure that when those rules are followed there are no ethical breaches.”

Federal election laws, put in place by the Harper Government permit individuals to give $1,525 to a party and another $1,525 to the riding association, which in essence is twice as much as Trudeau stated.

There is a serious moral chasm separating Trudeau’s declaration last November and his current defence of Liberal fundraising practices. A year ago, even the appearance of trading access to ministers for donations was in his view unethical.

When people attempt to justify their behaviour because it is technically admissible then it is usually safe to assume that it is morally questionable.

Trudeau and the Liberal Party are alone in believing that their behaviour is ethical. The opposition and the NDP have challenged the government on this practice, but of course, that challenge is predictable.

What is more telling is that Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson has said that she finds the situation unsavoury and Lobbying Commissioner Karen Shepherd’s office is scrutinizing these so called “pay-to-play” Liberal fundraisers.

It is abundantly obvious that if the Liberals were not the governing party, not too many would pay to have a drink with the same individuals who happen to be ministers now. This is not raising money through the party; this is raising money for the party by using their role in government as the selling point.

It also raises the larger question as to why major parties must engage in a relentless arms race scenario where fundraising is concerned. This voraciousness creates an unlevel playing field and essentially overwhelms contenders with relatively little resources from having their voices heard at election time.

Money is fluid; it always has currency and is always changing hands. In our political culture, money can always buy influence. It is naive to think otherwise.

Offering people access to ministers in exchange for a $1,500 donation to the Liberal Party is blatantly unethical. For the prime minister to stand up in the House and defend the indefensible is shameless.

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