Mr. Speaker, I wanted to say it is a pleasure to be rising, but at this time of night, that would be a lie, and I do not wish to mislead the House. I am, however, very pleased to be standing to talk about this charade called the election reform legislation. I want to put it in context in the time that is available.
The Liberals released their famous “Open and Accountable Government” guide to much fanfare, but none of it is legally binding, as the Prime Minister demonstrated, of course, by ignoring it altogether.
Canadians have become deeply concerned about the government's fundraising practices. My friend from Lanark—Frontenac—Kingston used the expressions Canadians have come to know with the government: “cash for access” and “pay to play”. I had not heard those terms before the government was elected, I concede, but now, of course, we hear them all the time.
Because of that practice, there was a concern about conflicts of interest at these various events. This bill is purporting to be the reform to address Canadians' concerns. Of course, it does nothing of the sort. It is, sadly, a half-baked measure that does not stop the cash for access events from happening whatsoever. It just makes it easier for Canadians to hear about them. I am not sure what that accomplishes.
We know they are happening. I guess we are supposed to feel better as Canadians that now it is out in the open. We can still have private parties where we invite friends of the party to come, and now we will know who the people are on the list. The Prime Minister will be there, or the Minister of Finance. I want to know what this is going to do to the lobbyist business. I know how many of my colleagues are concerned about the lobbying industry and how it is not doing very well. Frankly, why would I want to hire a lobbyist, when I could go myself, pay a few bucks, go and talk to the Minister of Finance, and maybe get the deal? Why spend thousands on a lobbyist? I am pretty persuasive. I will just go and talk him up. That is, of course, regularized by this legislation. I want this to perhaps be subtitled the lobbyists' despair act, because that may be what is going to happen as a consequence.
Not a single recommendation from the ethics committee, which studied the law on political fundraisers, found its way into this mishmash legislation. It is surprising to my colleagues that a committee would not have its recommendations addressed by the government, but I am sad to report that this appears to be the case.
I want to be clear from the outset, because of the way politics is played, that the NDP will of course be supporting this bill so we can refer it to the committee and tear it apart, as it deserves to be torn apart, and so we can actually have a meaningful response to Canadians' concerns about cash for access events.
I have to give credit where credit is due. The hon. member for Lanark—Frontenac—Kingston did an excellent job of reminding Canadians why we are here tonight at this late hour talking about this little fig leaf the Liberals are proposing to address the cash for access dilemma. He talked about Chinese billionaires attending Liberal fundraisers and making donations to the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, and maybe a statue here and there as well, or West Van billionaires having people over for dinner and talking about how the Chinese could buy a nursing care chain and so forth. Again, where were the lobbyists? I guess they did not need to come, because that was discussed at that meeting. Do not take my word for it. The individual who wanted that was actually bragging about his access to the Prime Minister that night.
I also want to salute the member for pointing out another anomaly. Frankly, this law applies to other parties as well as the governing party of the day. It applies to an electoral district association the leader of a party or an aspiring leader would attend. Somehow we are supposed to think that is fair. It is sauce for the goose. It is supposed to be tit for tat. Frankly, I am not sure who wants to go talk to an opposition party. Surely only one party can deliver a cabinet minister. That is the dripping roast lobbyists tend to want.
Good news, we are going to have them in private homes. I asked the minister, when she spoke, if that was covered, because that was in the mandate letter in January the Prime Minister gave the hon. Minister of Democratic Institutions. I do not think I got the answer to that question, but I can tell Canadians that the law says they can still have these fundraisers in that West Vancouver billionaire's private mansion, and the Prime Minister will come, and there will be a discussion about hockey games, I guess, or perhaps the events of the day in some foreign land. Far be it to talk about things that might involve cash for access or issues of that sort. I am sure they would never come up.
I have another example. When the Minister of Finance had billions of dollars to invest in infrastructure and other initiatives, such as a new container terminal and the development of federal harbour land in Halifax, what did he do? He had a private Liberal Party fundraiser at the home of a gentleman named Fred George. Fred George is a mining tycoon turned land developer in that city. According to a Globe and Mail article, about 15 people attended the $1,500 per person Liberal Laurier Club event. Among the people who were there was Jim Spatz, a federal director on the Halifax Port Authority board of directors and a land developer. These are exactly the types of cozy coincidences that cause concern to Canadians and give rise to the perception of undue influence, whether a direct conflict of interest exists or not.
One might ask why that is so important. It is because the Prime Minister said it is important. In Annex B of his famous “Open and Accountable Government” document, it states:
Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries must avoid conflict of interest, the appearance of conflict of interest and situations that have the potential to involve conflicts of interest.
Am I stretching it to think this event might just have a tad of potential conflict of interest? That is what the Prime Minister told us would not happen anymore under the enlightened regime before Canadians today that asks us to accept this initiative as addressing that problem. It does not.
What else did the Prime Minister say in his “Open and Accountable Government” document? He said something much more specific.
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.
I do not know about other members, but when I spend $1,500 to go to an event with a large number of Liberal donors and the Prime Minister or the Minister of Finance, I have a feeling that there might be the potential for conflict of interest. Some cynics might even think preferential access is available.
It is disappointing that the government did not respond to the concerns of Canadians with a genuine and robust effort to actually clean up its fundraising scandals.
I come from the province of British Columbia, where it took a New York Times journalist at a bar in Whistler to call it what it is: the wild west of fundraising. In our province, I am ashamed to tell members, there are absolutely no limits to how much money one can spend. We love preferential access. We think it is great. Contrast that to the province of Quebec, where two or three years ago, after some scandals there, a political decision was made to restrict the maximum donation for a party or an individual to $100. Quebec should be proud of leading the way for this kind of reform. Did the Liberals go anywhere near that? No. They decided that they would have these fundraising parties. Not to worry, because it would all be on the website so people could see who attended. That is not reform. That is a joke. I will come back to that in a moment.
I want to come back to a point I made when I was addressing the Minister of Democratic Institutions. I am sure it was inadvertent, but I believe that people would agree that she left the impression that somehow events that happen in private homes are off limits. They are entirely consistent. In other words, one can still have these cozy events in private homes.
In the mandate letter the Prime Minister gave to that minister, it very clearly said that the law would make fundraisers involving ministers, party leaders, and leadership candidates more transparent, including requiring them to be conducted “in publicly-available spaces”. This is not that law. One can still meet in someone's private home in West Vancouver and talk about transactions with government leaders, and that is just fine. This time they just have to tell us who is there, and that seems to be it. They just have to put it on the website.
That is a very modern solution, but it does not go anywhere near addressing the problem. I would not want anyone to think that somehow these cozy little deals in private homes are off limits. They are not. They are very much alive and well in Canada under this law.
According to media analysis, the Liberal Party scheduled more than 100 cash-for-access events in the year 2016 alone. They are enormously profitable, as we know. We are not just talking about transparency; we are talking about the principle of cash for access itself. As the government once recognized, it is not just about undue influence but about the perception of that undue influence.
If Canadians are watching at this late hour, I need to remind them that the bill does not in any way, shape, or form address the cash-for-access events. They are alive and well and continue to be profitable. A prime minister or a finance minister will be coming to a private residence nearby, but this time people are going to know who is there.
Bill C-50 creates a new class of what are called “regulated fundraising events”, subject to special reporting requirements. In theory, these requirements would apply to a broad range of events with ticket prices over $200. It would require public notice in the days leading up to the event and the public release of the attendees' names within 30 days following the event. In practice, there are glaring gaps, most notably, as my colleague earlier commented, the exclusion for what are called “contributor appreciation events” at party conventions. In other words, the bill as written appears to subject to its reporting requirements an event that requires a $250 donation to attend, but not one organized to express appreciation for individuals who have donated $250. I do not understand that, but that is what the bill says.
For example, the bill would continue to allow donors at the Laurier Club, the high-donor Liberal organization, to contribute $1,500 at party conventions and then gain access to the exclusive events with cabinet ministers and the prime minister. They do not seem to think that is a problem at all. It is too bad the Prime Minister did when he wrote a non-binding document that was celebrated not that long ago, called “Open and Accountable Government”.
If anyone doubts that donors really do expect access in return for their cash, let me quote the website of the Liberal Party's Leaders Circle, an elite tier of donors who not only max out their donation limits set by existing political finance laws but also bundle together at least 10 others. These donors, who brought at least $16,500 to the Liberal Party, are promised a variety of recognition opportunities, including an annual dinner with the leader and invitations to events and discussions with leaders within the party.
What is that? I would call it unique access to the Prime Minister of Canada and members of his cabinet. It just costs a little more. Apparently the ministers attended 31 such appreciation events last year alone. Under this bill, what would change about those? Zero, so it is deeply disappointing that the government did not respond to the concerns of Canadians with a genuine and robust effort to actually clean up political fundraising. It could have followed the lead of other governments that have actually banned politicians and candidates from attending such events. Instead we have a fig leaf and we are supposed to be happy about it.
I have another concern I promised I would come back to. It is that the bill does not just apply to what we would think it would, such as having access to cabinet ministers and the like, because that is what Canadians call cash for access. Somehow it has to cover opposition leaders and their parties as well, which is a bit odd. The thing that worries me is these people are going to have their names on an easily accessible website. Everyone who would come to a Liberal fundraising event would be known, and it would be the same for a Conservative or an NDP fundraising event in similar circumstances.
Let us say a public servant in the current government attended a Conservative fundraising event, or an individual who had aspirations to be appointed to a federal agency or something of that sort attended. It is their public right, their right as Canadians, whether public servants or otherwise, to attend a fundraising event for the Conservative Party, an opposition party.
Somebody in the Liberal Party or apparatchiks in the government would be able to cross-reference the list of donors, the list of people who gave money to the Conservatives, and then know who was not a supporter of the government of the day. What would happen then? What they would be able to find out by cross-referencing is people who will not be appointed to a federal agency because they are the wrong political stripe. A public servant might suddenly see that their best new opportunity is in Iqaluit, because that is where they might send people who are outed as donors to another party.
As the Liberals say, and they may say, that is not something we would do. We are not like that.
However, we are making this law for a long, long time until it is changed, so it is not an excuse to say, “We would not do that”, because in the hands of another, less generous party, that could happen. Therefore I would ask, as this gets to committee, that we consider that possibility.
Frankly, are there privacy concerns with this? In the zeal to have transparency and actually not do anything about cash for access, but let everybody know who comes to these events, are there issues of privacy? I would ask the Privacy Commissioner to opine on that.
Yes, indeed, we all have a right to attend political events. The lifeblood of our democracy is those people who wish to get involved, and we salute those who participate, but it seems there may be a high price to pay, both in the loss of an individual's privacy as well as the potential impact on their career aspirations as a consequence of doing so. I think that is something that at least is worth consideration.
I want to suggest that the bill is deeply flawed. It is flawed in principle and it is flawed in drafting. It does not do what Canadians expected it to do. It ignores committee recommendations on ethics that could have made a difference. Instead it is providing more information, perhaps to the detriment of individual Canadians, so I ask the government to be open to suggestions at committee.
It is not often that suggestions that come from opposition parties are accepted, but perhaps this is an exception. I would welcome the opportunity to have a serious conversation about what the Liberals are trying to do.
Cash for access will continue. We can still buy access to the Prime Minister and cabinet ministers if we have the money to pay. In press releases and commentary, the Minister of Democratic Institutions told reporters that what happens at the cabinet table is not influenced by what happens at fundraising events. That is a direct quote. Even if that is true for this government, which I severely doubt, a lot of Canadians do not expect it to be true. They think that there is an appearance of problems here, and as the Prime Minister himself argued, that ought not to be the case, but it is the case and it will continue to be the case. I ask the Liberals what they think they are achieving by such a hollow exercise.
Having these events in private homes where the media are not required to come to tell us who is there and what they are doing and what they are talking about is just ridiculous. It is just a complete travesty. It will not achieve what Canadians expected would happen here. We all expressed outrage at these cash-for-access events. We all expected meaningful reform, and this is what we were given. It is not even consistent with the open and accountable government document that the Prime Minister talked about.
We will have to support the bill so we can get it to committee. Then let us fix it. Let us roll up our sleeves and make it better for Canadians.