Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says business people bend his ear at Liberal Party fundraisers, but he insists they do not hold any sway on government policy.
Answering questions on the so-called "cash-for-access" controversy, Trudeau insisted he will answer questions or listen to anyone who wants to speak with him about issues that are important to them.
"The fact is, my approach continues to be to listen broadly through every possible opportunity I get and make the right decisions based on what's best for Canada," he said during a year-end news conference in Ottawa. "I can say that in various Liberal Party events, I listen to people as I will in any given situation, but the decisions I make in government are ones based on what is right for Canadians, not on what an individual at a fundraiser might say."
Trudeau said he and his cabinet ministers are "extremely available" through a number of public and private venues, including town halls, news conferences, or closed-door meetings with municipal leaders and first responders.
"This is a government that is extraordinarily open to multiple perspectives, as we always have. At no point does attending a fundraiser give particular or special access on policy to anyone," he said.
Trudeau also expressed confidence that fundraising events meet the spirit of his own guidelines.
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His comments today appeared to run counter to guidance offered by Christina Topp, interim national director of the Liberal Party of Canada, in a letter to all ministers and parliamentary secretaries on Nov. 4, 2016.
"Any individual who wishes to initiate a policy discussion is immediately redirected to instead make an appointment with the relevant office. As you know, fundraising events are partisan functions where we do not discuss government business," she wrote.
A spokesman in the prime minister's office said specific laws set out the definition and rules of lobbying, and that it is not permitted at partisan events.
Press secretary Cameron Ahmad distinguished between having conversations and listening and carrying out policy discussions, insisting that "government business" was never discussed at party fundraisers.
"The letter from the party serves as guidance to ministers, and states that policy discussions should not be held at these events," he said in an email. "There is an important difference between listening to someone and engaging in a detailed policy discussion."
An ethical mess?
Interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose accused the Liberals of trying to spin their way out of an "ethical mess."
"Not only is he 100 per cent comfortable, he brags about all the government business he discusses at these fundraisers," she said. "How can the prime minister be so blind on ethics?"
NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice went even further, calling the Liberal move to break the party's own rules "cash-for-access corruption."
The Conservatives and NDP have asked federal ethics commissioner Mary Dawson to investigate several Liberal fundraising events, asking her to determine whether the $1,500-a-ticket events violate conflict of interest or lobbying rules.
Trudeau has insisted his government has followed fundraising rules that are among the strictest in the country and the world.
At his year-end news conference in Ottawa Monday, Trudeau also took questions on health-care funding, electoral reform and on what was the lowest point in his first year in office.
Asked about the government's plan to purchase 18 Boeing Super Hornet fighter aircraft, Trudeau blamed the former Conservative government's "botched" procurement for the need to require an interim fleet.
"The previous government left us in a situation where we are currently unable to live up to our responsibilities under Norad and NATO at the same time," he said. "Which means we have had to go with an interim process to make sure we are giving the men and women of the Canadian Armed Forces the tools they need, that we are protecting our own air space in Canada, living up to our continental responsibilities and also able to fulfil our international responsibilities."
Trudeau was pressed on whether the federal government would extend the current six per cent health funding escalator, but he would say only that health ministers will meet next Monday to "look at options."
He also declined to comment on whether the government was considering taxing private health and dental plans. He said the government is now engaged in pre-budget consultations and hope to "clean up the tax code" to eliminate boutique tax breaks and simplify the regime.