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Political financing under scrutiny

Heads up, shy and retiring partisans. If you’re among the thousands of Canadians who regularly, if quietly, exercise their democratic right to fork over their hard-earned cash for the chance to get up close and personal — or at least be in the same room as — your federal party leader of choice, the details of your participation in such after-hours political activities may soon be a matter of public record.

At some point between now and the end of the year, Team Trudeau’s much-self-vaunted bid to “set a higher bar” on transparency in political financing by imposing new disclosure requirements for fundraisers featuring in-person appearances by cabinet ministers, party leaders and leadership candidates is set to kick in.    

Under the new rules, parties will be obliged to publicize, via a “prominent location” on the website, the details of such events at least five days in advance, including the date, time, venue and ticket price, if applicable, as well as contact information for anyone — read: the unquenchably curious media — seeking more information.

They also have to prepare a follow-up report — which has to be posted within 30 days of the event — with the full list of attendees (except, that is, for support staff, reporting press and guests under the age of 18), including names, city and province of residency and, most crucially, the total amount paid to attend the event, whether as a one-off ticket price or to meet the minimum donations required (by the party) to get in the door.

For those scratching their heads and trying to recall the impetus for this particular legislative push, here are three words that should jog the collective memory: “cash for access.”

That was the universal journalistic shorthand for the Liberals’ now voluntarily discontinued practice of letting well-heeled party supporters pay up to $1,500 a pop to rub shoulders with senior cabinet ministers — and even, on more than one occasion, the prime minister himself — at exclusive off-the-record get-togethers, the very existence of which were largely unknown outside the party until the fall of 2016, when it made headlines in the Globe and Mail and promptly became the biggest — and, for the Liberals, most damaging — political story of the year.

And while PM Justin Trudeau and his front bench did their best to defend themselves — pointing out, repeatedly, if pointlessly, that it was all totally legal — they really had no choice but to crack down on the practice, even if it meant turning their own party’s fundraising strategy into a cautionary tale.

And to give the Liberal party credit, it has been voluntarily adhering to the new regime for more than a year, as a quick scan of the data posted to the “open fundraising” portal will confirm.

What we don’t yet know, however, is how it will affect the already tension-fraught relationship that we, as Canadians, have with the very notion of partisan politicking — particularly when it can be assigned a dollar value.

Elections Canada already maintains a publicly accessible database of federal political contributions, after all, and if you’ve ever wondered about the ideological leanings of your boss, co-worker, in-laws or nosy neighbours, it takes all of five minutes to pull up a complete list of their donations, if any.

It would be a shame if, in our enthusiasm for opening up the political process to public scrutiny, we inadvertently wound up discouraging those on the margins from paying to get a closer look, simply out of concern that they may be forever branded as a partisan actor and not an impartial, but interested observer.

In fact, if I can be glass half full for a moment, it’s entirely possible that publicly posting those attendance lists may actually dispel some widespread fears about the influence of money in our federal politics. This isn’t the United States of America, after all — you’re not going to see anyone donating $100,000 to attend a dinner party at Rideau Cottage. The rules are pretty clear: You get to donate $1,575 per year to a party and another $1,575 to a riding association and that’s it.

Whether you spend it all at once to attend a reception with a cabinet minister or your contribution is broken down into automatic monthly withdrawals, that, it seems, is the real safety net on political financing: When you come down to it, there’s just not that much money involved and the new reports will only emphasize that.

Kady O’Malley is a member of the parliamentary press gallery in Ottawa and writes about politics, procedure and process for iPolitics. She also appears regularly on CBC television and radio.

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