Trudeau touts Liberals' 'spirit of openness' at first fundraiser under new rules

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave a quick speech lauding his government's new policy on how the Liberals raise money during his first fundraiser since the party put the new rules in place. Registered lobbyists were turned away from the Montreal event.

Lobbyists turned away, but Conservatives, NDP say they will take no lessons from Liberals on fundraising rules

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau headlined a fundraiser in Montreal Thursday night, his party's first since changing its rules to try to address criticism that people seeking to influence his government were buying access to ministers through party fundraisers. Registered lobbyists were turned away from the event, and the media was allowed to attend. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave a quick speech lauding his government's new policy on how the Liberals raise money during his first fundraiser since the party put the new rules in place.

Attendees paid up to $250 to hear the prime minister speak for 10 minutes and get a photo with him in a lobby of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

To fend off accusations the party was providing preferential access to Trudeau and his cabinet in exchange for dollars from wealthy donors in private homes, the party introduced a new policy it says makes raising cash more transparent.

"I am very happy to see members of the press this evening," Trudeau said early in his remarks, which drew subdued applause from the roughly 300-person crowd.

"We are very happy to see (journalists) among us and thank you very much for being here," he said, looking at reporters and raising his hands to give a conspicuous, single clap.

The new system involves holding fundraisers featuring Trudeau or ministers only in public places, announcing them in advance, allowing the media to attend and disclosing the guest list within the following 45 days.

Thursday's event in Montreal was not the first of its kind under the new rules. Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr attended a fundraiser in Calgary at the end of April.

"We are the first to adopt this practice," Trudeau said, adding "we hope the other parties will quickly do the same thing in the spirit of openness and trust with Canadians."

'Cash-for-access is back'

Roughly 30 minutes before he took the stage, the Conservative party did some fundraising of its own.

In an email sent to supporters, Stephen McCreary, director of digital operations for the party, said "the Liberals' cash-for-access fundraising scheme is back."

"They'll say their fundraisers are open to the 'public,' but the cost of admission ranges from $250 to $1,500 a head — just like before."

The email also boasted the party collected almost twice as much money as the Liberals have in the first three months of the year.

The Liberals have come under opposition fire for holding fundraising events such as this one in which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau centre, Benson Wong, top left, and Shenglin Xian, top right can be seen at a fundraising event at Benson Wong's home in Toronto. Shenglin Financial posted this image on their website under the title: Shenglin Xian and Chinese Celebrities Meets Canada Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. (Shenglin Financial/shenglin.com)

Liberal party spokesman Braeden Caley said there was "a pause" on national fundraising events throughout the first quarter while the new standards for open and transparent fundraising events were being prepared.

Some Liberals are pointing to that as one reason for lacklustre fundraising figures in the first three months of this year, when the Conservatives raised nearly twice as much money from a larger pool of contributors, even though they are in the midst of a leadership race that ought to be siphoning would-be donations to the party.

"There's a small connection," spokesman Braeden Caley said when asked whether the lower profile played a role.

Lobbyists screened out

There were registered lobbyists who signed up and paid to attend Thursday's fundraiser, but the Liberal party said they were removed from the guest list.

"Individuals who were registered to lobby the special guest were informed they would not be able to attend this event, in line with the party's commitment regarding such checks in advance of ticketed fundraising events," Caley wrote in an email Thursday.

Caley confirmed fewer than five individuals who were registered to lobby the PMO had bought tickets.

"No other party has made a similar (fundraising) commitment and we challenge them to do so," Caley said.

Soon, they might not have a choice.

The Liberal government promised legislation that would require similar disclosure for events involving party leaders and leadership candidates.

"It's always possible to raise the bar and we will continue to work hard to make the government more transparent," Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould said Thursday during question period.

John O'Leary, her spokesman, said the government aims to introduce the legislation this spring.

Opposition skeptical

One Liberal source said the legislation will be essentially the same as the measures the party brought in, which would prevent the party having to once again change the way they are doing things.

One significant difference, according to two Liberal sources, will likely be the lack of a requirement to open the events up to the media.

The Conservatives and New Democrats say they do not plan on taking any lessons from the Liberals.

"The reality is they weren't able to follow their own set of rules the first time," said Conservative MP Blaine Calkins.

New Democrat MP Nathan Cullen said his skepticism stems from the fact the Liberals deserted their promise to change how Canadians vote. "I have very, very low trust with this government when it comes to democratic reform."