Some Thoughts on the Liberal Party’s Fundraising Dinner Last Night

This week, Prime Minister Trudeau dodged questions about the Liberal Party’s fundraising activities and put the ethics of donor cultivation on the forefront of many people’s minds in Canada.

What’s interesting about the story is that it touches on several issues that we have strong feelings about: fundraising, lobbying, open government, justice, the wealth gap and of course Canada’s new PM.

If you haven’t been following the story: the Liberal Party hosted a fundraising dinner whose main guests–besides the partners and would-be future judges at Torys LLP, a corporate law firm based on Bay Street in Toronto–included Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada Jody Wilson-Raybould. Tickets for the dinner were $500, and you could only purchase one if you were employed by or otherwise connected to Torys LLP.

The fact that the dinner was not advertised publicly places the event in tension with the best practices described in the Liberal Party’s own “Open and Accountable Government” document published last fall, which explains how

Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries should ensure that the solicitation of political contributions on their behalf does not target: departmental stakeholders, or other lobbyists and employees of lobbying firms. Note that this is not intended to restrict general fundraising appeals made to a broad group of supporters or potential supporters.

Since a major firm on Bay Street will presumably have “official dealings with Ministers, Parliamentary Secretaries, their staff or their departments,” they count as “departmental stakeholders” which means they should not be singled out for solicitations. The event organizers avoided this criticism by claiming that it was hosted by a partner with the firm, not the firm itself. Apparently he holds family BBQs at the office too.

Deflections like these fall short trying to explain away the optics of the event, which are as relevant as its ethical legitimacy. As “Open and Accountable Government” also states in several key passages dealing with fundraising and lobbyists:

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.

Even the semblance of differential treatment, in other words, should disqualify certain kinds of solicitations. So whether or not the event actually misstepped around the Party’s rules or actual laws regulating lobbyists is neither here nor there if it looks, to the average reader, fishy.

This principle represents a higher bar in terms of doing both fundraising and government. If the way that we fundraise and show how we fundraise can communicate a lack of preferential treatment, then the public’s trust in fundraising strategies and government representatives may grow stronger.

Ironically, this was the position that the provincial Liberal Party leader Kathleen Wynne took the same day as the story broke about the Tory LLP dinner. As she announced:

“Mr. Speaker I think we have to lead by example and that’s why I’ve made the decision to immediately cancel upcoming private fundraisers that I attend, Mr. Speaker, and I’ve also asked the same of my ministers.”

To me the most intriguing takeaway from this contrast is how in the touch-and-go, PR-driven arena of party fundraising, good communications come before good policy. In what might be a simplified version of events: leaders like Kathleen Wynne must articulate an ethical stance before such a stance exists in the legal framework. And this is the job of a strategic communicator.

All of this said, I confess that when I heard about the dinner, my first thought was what a great way to thank a specific group of donors, since what lawyer wouldn’t want to meet the Minister of Justice? As a donor appreciation event, it’s spot on. It aligns the reason that this group of donors give with the cause.

But going back to Kathleen Wynne’s point: would it take away from the event to publicize it or make it open? Presumably, anyone who would make a donation to the Liberal Party for a chance to meet the Minister of Justice would be thrilled to do just that. In this respect the Liberal Party ran an unnecessary risk by making the event private. It needn’t have been to raise the same funds or more.

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