National Column: Making sense of Trudeau’s cash-for-access scandal

by Thomas Walkom

On May 19, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attended a Liberal party fundraising soirÈe at the home of a wealthy Chinese-Canadian.

Canadian citizens who attended paid $1,500 each for the privilege. By law, foreigners – including an unknown number of Chinese nationals who were there – did not.

One attendee, Canadian financier Shenglin Xian, was awaiting final federal approval of his plan to set up a new bank. He received that approval two months later.

Another, Chinese billionaire Zhang Bin, later contributed much of a $1-million charitable donation made to the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation and the UniversitÈ de MontrÈal’s law school.

That’s the bare bones of what happened. But since Tuesday, when news of this event was first reported by the Globe and Mail, the May 19 fundraiser has dominated the Commons.

In political circles, it has eclipsed even the election of Donald Trump.

Trudeau has been accused of selling access for cash and of breaking his own ambitious integrity guidelines.

Even the charitable foundation set up in honour of Trudeau’s late father has been drawn into the fray.

In language reminiscent of the Cold War, the prime minister has been accused by Conservative MP Candice Bergen and others of dallying with Chinese Communists – what my old comic-book hero Sgt. Rock used to call ChiComs.

Over the week, all of this made my head hurt. So please bear with me as I try to sort out what, if anything, occurred that was inappropriate.

First, the event itself was legal. Maybe such meet-and-greets, where donors get to briefly hobnob with elected politicians, should be banned. But at the federal level, they are not.

The Liberals point out, correctly, that all political parties engage in this kind of behaviour in their efforts to raise money.

Did anything untoward happen on May 19 as the prime minister glad-handed his way around a room chock-a-bloc with billionaires? I’d be surprised. I’ve seen Trudeau in operation. He’s invariably both charming and noncommittal.

Like all successful politicians, he has the knack of making whomever he is speaking to feel like the most important person in the room. But he rarely says anything of substance.

Second, what about those ChiComs? Is Trudeau really a latter-day Manchurian Candidate?

Anything, of course, is possible. But while it might be ironic to find that Chinese billionaires are card-carrying Communists, it should not be surprising. The Communist Party runs China. Chinese billionaires understand this and so, I suspect, does Conservative MP Bergen.

Canada could decide to boycott China until the Communist Party has fallen. But I don’t see the Conservatives calling for this.

Third, should Trudeau have hobnobbed at this event with would-be banker Xian? Xian is a longtime figure in Chinese-Canadian business circles. When former prime minister Jean ChrÈtien led Team Canada trips to China, Xian accompanied him.

As the Star reported in 2005, the financier has a controversial past. At one point, the appeal panel of a professional association to which he belonged slapped his wrist over his business practices.

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None of this stopped his rise. Last year, according to a timeline provided by the federal finance department, Xian’s Wealth One Bank of Canada was provisionally awarded rare schedule-one status by then Conservative finance minister Joe Oliver.

In July, two months after the Trudeau fundraiser, Xian’s bank was granted full schedule-one status by the federal superintendent of financial institutions.

Should Trudeau have gadded about last May with someone whose request to government was still pending?

The answer is no. Did that $1,500 dinner secure Xian his lucrative banking licence? I doubt it.

Finally, the foundation. Billionaire Zhang may have made his generous donation to the Trudeau foundation because he truly admired Pierre Trudeau. Or he may have been trying to curry favour with his son. Who knows?

What we do know is that Zhang seemed to have received nothing from this contribution other than a warm glow.

The donation (to what even Trudeau’s critics agree is a reputable charity) didn’t earn him access to the prime minister. He already had that.

Conservative interim leader Rona Ambrose says that Trudeau’s actions last May don’t pass the smell test. And maybe they don’t.

But as fans of Asia’s durian fruit know, smell doesn’t tell you everything. While the durian smells like putrid gym socks, its flesh is succulent and sweet.

It is a reminder that things aren’t always as they seem.

Thomas Walkom appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Copyright 2016-Torstar Syndication Services

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