Andrew Coyne: Sordid encounters of the Liberal kind
I believe the immortal words were first uttered by a guest at a London house party in the 1970s. Observed disappearing upstairs with another of the guests, she returned some time later, smoothing her dress, with the explanation that “the minister and I were just discussing Uganda.”
The phrase, “discussing Uganda,” has ever since been the British press’s preferred euphemism for sordid sexual encounters. Well now a new phrase may have entered the language, this time to describe a sordid encounter of another kind. It was given to us by the prime minister, in an effort to allay concerns over his reported serial dalliances with Chinese billionaires and other well-heeled contributors at those exclusive private fundraisers you may have been reading about, tickets to which sell for $1,500 apiece — the maximum allowable political contribution under federal law.
While it was true, Justin Trudeau acknowledged, that guests at these affairs often discussed government business with him, he did not discuss government business with them. Rather, his discussions with the ultrarich are strictly related to the many wonderful things his government is doing for the middle class.
“No matter where I am or who I am talking to,” he told the House of Commons Tuesday, “I always talk about the same thing: the fact that our priorities are to create economic growth for the middle class, by increasing taxes for the one per cent of the wealthiest so we are able to reduce them for the middle class. We point out that we stopped sending out child benefits to wealthy families so we can do more for the families who need it.”
So you see? We were just discussing the middle class. The wealthy host of a Nov. 7 fundraiser in West Vancouver, Miaofei Pan, may have used the occasion to discuss loosening federal restrictions on Chinese investment in the Canadian elderly care industry — coincidentally, just as a $1-billion bid from a Chinese insurance company for a B.C. retirement-home chain is under review — but that did not mean the prime minister discussed it with him.
Likewise in the case of a May 19 event at a Toronto home: while the insurance magnate Shenglin Xian, as a guest at the party, may have hoped to discuss federal approval for a new bank he had planned, if the prime minister is to be believed the discussions were focused, with monomaniacal precision, on the plight of the middle class.
This is a departure from previous Liberal explanations for the presence of ministers of the Crown at partisan fundraisers: that no law was broken, or that federal rules on political financing are the strictest in the country, or at any rate that should anyone be so gauche as to bring up government business at such an event, they are instantly set upon by strong men and bundled from the room. Or to more exactly quote the party’s former national director, they are “immediately directed to instead make an appointment with the relevant office.”
That explanation would now appear to be, as they say, inoperative. The prime minister’s version of events, as elucidated further in his year-end press conference, is rather that attendees do indeed discuss government business with him, but that this should raise no concerns because a) he talks with people even when they don’t give him money (“I and my entire government make ourselves extremely available to Canadians through a broad range of venues”), b) their contributions to the party have no influence on his thinking (“the decisions I take in government are ones based on what is right for Canadians”), not to mention this latest addition, c) he doesn’t even discuss with them what they are discussing with him. At all times, in all situations, they are simply discussing the middle class.
Now, none of these points remotely addresses the very clear principle laid down in the prime minister’s own instructions to ministers, which was not merely that “there should be no preferential access to government” given to contributors to the party, but that there should not even be the “appearance of preferential access.” The prime minister’s defence of his conduct would seem to be that how something appears to others is a matter of his own internal state of mind: if he himself does not believe there has been an exchange of preferential access for contributions to the Liberal party, neither will anyone else.
I am all for giving people the benefit of the doubt. But in the present instance it does require us to believe some very odd things. If the people who attend these parties were only interested in meeting the prime minister, they could do that, as he says, for free.
Conversely, if all they were interested in was contributing to the Liberal Party of Canada, they could just mail it a cheque. Somehow, it seems important to them to do both at the same time: meet the prime minister while contributing to the party. Yet, having plunked down their $1,500 in the expectation of an intimate and revealing tête-à-tête, they find themselves on the receiving end, by the prime minister’s own account, of nothing but a torrent of Liberal boilerplate about the middle class.
All I’m saying is, you’d think word would get around. “Yeah, about those ‘exclusive opportunities’ to party with Justin Trudeau? Save your money. Guy’s a crashing bore. It’s like he wasn’t even listening to us.” And yet, there seems no letup in the demand. The prime minister is as hot a ticket with the billionaire set as ever. Maybe they’ve been led to believe “discussing the middle class” is code for something saucier.
Andrew Coyne: Sordid encounters of the Liberal kind | National Post