Trudeau defends ministers' fundraising by pointing to Conservative use of Senate appointments

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says his party's fundraising efforts are more scrupulous than the former Harper government because he didn't stack the Senate with fundraisers and well-known former journalists who could stump for cash.

Prime minister's ethics rules say there should be no 'perception' of a conflict of interest in fundraising

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defended ministers' fundraising by pointing to Conservative use of Senate appointments. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says his party's fundraising efforts are more scrupulous than the former Harper government because he didn't stack the Senate with fundraisers and well-known former journalists who could stump for cash.

"The fact is that the Conservative Party had a very different approach to fundraising than this government does. They chose to name people like Mike Duffy or Irving Gerstein to the Senate and charge them with the responsibility of raising money for the Conservative Party of Canada," he said.

The prime minister said his government is different because he has appointed nominally independent members to the Red Chamber.

Trudeau, who spoke to reporters on the eve of his first year in office, has faced persistent questions from opposition members in the House of Commons who say the practice of ministers of the Crown attending pricey fundraising events breaks rules the prime minister himself crafted to avoid conflicts of interest.

Senator Mike Duffy says he was used by Stephen Harper to "friend raise," while Irving Gerstein pulled in cash. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his fundraising practices are more scrupulous because he did not pack the Senate with fundraisers. (Prime Minister's Office)

He released new non-binding ethics guidelines on Nov. 27, 2015, called "Open and Accountable Government."

The 87-page document says ministers and parliamentary secretaries "must ensure that political fundraising activities or considerations do not affect, or appear to affect, the exercise of their official duties or the access of individuals or organizations to government."

"There should be no preferential access to government, or appearance of preferential access, accorded to individuals or organizations because they have made financial contributions to politicians and political parties," the guidelines read.

The issue first emerged in April, when CBC News reported Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould was attending a $500-a-head Liberal Party event at a top Toronto law firm — where would-be attendees were told they were "fortunate to have secured an evening of her time."

More recently, the Globe and Mail unveiled Finance Minister Bill Morneau, and other cabinet ministers, have attended a number of so-called "pay-for-play" fundraisers hosted by wealthy businesspeople.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau is one cabinet minister who has attended a number of so-called "pay for play" fundraisers hosted by wealthy businesspeople. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The Conservatives have said more than 100 such events have been held with various cabinet ministers in attendance.

When asked directly Thursday whether he thought such fundraisers break the spirit of the code he introduced, the prime minister said: "No. Those rules are precisely the ones being followed."

He repeated an oft-used line that fundraising rules at the federal level are among the strictest in the country, and that when it comes to collecting money, political parties must report the donations publicly to Elections Canada.

"Be reassured ... we can all know exactly who gave money to political parties," he said.

'Not very savoury'

Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson has said the so-called pay-to-play practice is "not very savoury" and is calling for changes to Canada's law to restrict the practice.

Dawson said the ethics law prohibits a cabinet minister from organizing a meeting themselves to raise funds, but is silent on what happens if a political party organizes an event that facilitates a meeting.

Moreover, she has no power to enforce the non-binding ethics guidelines introduced by Trudeau after his swearing-in.

The Conservative Party introduced a motion in the House Thursday, which would grant Dawson the authority to oversee the directives outlined in the prime minister's open and accountable government guidelines.

Gerstein, Duffy big Tory draws

Gerstein, who is the chair of the Conservative Fund of Canada, was appointed by then prime minister Stephen Harper in 2009.

He is a formidable fundraising force, something Duffy acknowledged during his criminal trial for fraud, breach of trust and bribery.

"Irving Gerstein has a machine that raises money," he said of the network of donors that line the Conservative Party's coffers.

Gerstein, for his part, embraced the bag man label despite some of its negative connotations.

"Colleagues, I came into the Senate as a bag man and I'm going out as a bag man and I'm very proud of that fact," he said in February, after announcing his retirement. "I continue to believe the job of raising the funds of the Conservative Party — or for that matter any party — is both necessary and honourable. Political parties require money to operate."

Senator Irving Gerstein remains the chairman of the Conservative Fund of Canada. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Duffy, who now sits as an Independent, was also a big draw for Harper as he travelled across the country. But he said his main goal was not to raise money, but rather to "friend raise" and convince voters that the former prime minister did not have a "hidden agenda."

Some of those trips raised red flags with the RCMP, who questioned whether these partisan activities were eligible for Senate expenses. The judge in Duffy's fraud and breach of trust trial ultimately ruled they were within the Senate's rules when he cleared Duffy of all charges.