National Column: On fundraising, Trudeau learns difficult balancing act

by Chantal Hebert

To understand Justin Trudeau’s visceral reluctance to respond to mounting criticism of his party’s fundraising practices, it is best to simply follow the money.

A look at the fundraising reports filed to date with Elections Canada for 2016 goes a long way to explain why the prime minister has defended tooth-and-nail the controversial practice of spending face time in private with select groups of well-heeled donors in exchange for contributions to his party’s coffers.

The numbers tell a more convincing story than Trudeauís latest contention that his participation in cash-for-access events is part of his crusade to help the middle class. They also provide some insights as to why the Liberals have so far been stubbornly resisting calls to mend their ways.

Here are some highlights:

The Conservatives continue to lead the fundraising pack. Despite having the advantage of being in government the Liberals collected less money than the official opposition over the first three-quarters of 2016. If anything, being in opposition motivates the Conservative base.

The Conservative Party of Canada’s lead did shrink from quarter to quarter this year (possibly because of the Liberals’ cash-for-access efforts). That lead is nevertheless noteworthy. This is a party that is well behind in voting intentions and at least three years away, in the best-case scenario, from coming back to government. It is without a permanent leader and is presenting the country with a leadership lineup long on ambition but short on public appeal.

The NDP’s fundraising has been on a downward spiral since the last campaign.

Thomas Mulcair’s demotion to caretaker leader last spring has not helped. Nor has the fact that the federal NDP is on a collision course with Albertaís New Democrat government over pipelines. In corporate circles, Premier Rachel Notley is the party’s main (and only) attraction.

For the first full post-confidence-vote quarter ending on Sept. 30, the NDP collected less than $1 million. That’s nine times less than what the party raised over the same period at the time of last year’s campaign.

The Bloc Quebecois is on starvation rations. The sovereigntist party barely raised $100,000 over the quarter ending Sept. 30. If former Parti Quebecois minister Martine Ouellet does run for the federal leadership next year, the party will not be able to match her current salary as a member of the National Assembly. Nor would it have a safe federal seat to offer her.

There are measures the Trudeau Liberals could take to make part or all of the ongoing controversy over their fundraising practices go away, but only at some potential cost to their partisan interests and to the edge that their government status grants them.

They could imitate their Queenís Park cousins and ban the prime minister, his ministers and their parliamentary secretaries from attending private cash-for-access events. But even if that ban were extended to the other party leaders, the Liberals, by virtue of their position of power, would stand to lose the most. There are, by definition, more people willing to pay a toll for fast-lane access to people in government.

Trudeau could follow Quebec’s example and bring the ceiling on political donations down from $1,500 a year to just $100. At that level, it would not be worth the partyís time to stage exclusive cash-for-access events for a small number of donors.

Quebec makes up for that low ceiling with a public subsidy based on the votes each party received in the previous election. In the same spirit, Trudeau could restore the per-vote-subsidy initially introduced by Jean Chretien and subsequently eliminated by Stephen Harper.

If the Liberal government went down that road it could minimize the toll on public funds by decreasing or eliminating the existing tax break for individual political contributions.

But by bringing back the per-vote-subsidy Trudeau would be breathing a bit more life into the cash-starved NPD, Bloc and Green party. The move would also consolidate the Conservative’s fundraising edge.

In a year-end interview on Radio-Canada on Thursday, the prime minister, for the first time, climbed down from his stone wall and opened the door a fraction to changes to his government’s approach to fundraising. Almost in the same breath, Trudeau reiterated his promise to introduce a new voting system in time for the 2019 election.

In different ways, both issues pit the self-interest of the Liberal party against Trudeau’s word to Canadians. It is a balancing act that comes no more easily to this prime minister than to his predecessors.

Copyright 2016-Torstar Syndication Services

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