In a National Post article today, two authors did their best to give credence to an investigation into the Trudeau Foundation, apparently horrified that the coffers of a world leader’s foundation would swell with foreign investment only after Justin Trudeau became the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. And then the Prime Minister. Seriously? That’s the biggest concern here? Of course, domestic and foreign agents are going to attempt to persuade or curry favour with the PM or any other leader – like Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump – through any means possible, legal or illegal. The real question, in 2016, should be how is this practice even allowed to occur; why has this obvious ethical and monetary loophole – having a charitable foundation, serving on an influential board of governors, or running a business – not been completely closed by our elected leaders through democratic legislatures?
For pages and pages, the authors drone on about what they have uncovered in publicly available records in an embarrassing attempt to create political intrigue where there is none. Businesses and private individuals give massive sums of money to political parties, especially the Liberals. This is not news. If nothing else, Trudeau and his handlers know how to make money and attract investment to further push their agenda. Trudeau is deeply charismatic, suave, sophisticated … and that hair. I mean, wow. He is affable and seemingly always camera-ready, no matter his state of dress. All of this should be blatantly obvious. And it is the Trudeau brand, replete with central Canada’s deep affections for his father, that propelled him to the pinnacle of political power, much to the chagrin of social and fiscal conservatives. It most certainly was not his political platform, although, it didn’t hurt after almost a decade under the perceived robot-sweater-vest-wearing-economic-doom-and-gloom Stephen Harper.
Of course, interim-leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, Rona Ambrose, had already written a strongly-worded letter to the ethic czar on Parliament Hill to investigate this completely legal practice. With dramatic hyperbole, Ambrose suggests, “any efforts by Mr. Trudeau to use his position as Prime Minister to encourage donations may be a violation of the definition of a conflict of interest.” Any efforts to encourage donations may be a violation of a definition. Palpable prose proffered by the poetic Ambrose. I have goosebumps. The problem: good luck proving what would actually be a serious matter. For Ambrose, she might as well throw mud at the wall and see what sticks: there is nothing to be lost if this funding matter dies over the holidays. Yet again.
Perhaps memory runs short, but this was a deeply troubling issue that dogged Prime Minister Paul Martin until Harper finally unseated him in 2006 (Harper lost his first general election to Martin in 2004). Martin was a Canadian shipping magnate. His business, Canadian Steamship Lines (CSL), was held in a blind-trust and eventually owned by his sons, but not before the issue of ownership, tax-avoidance, and collusion politically-hurt the former heavyweight Minister of Finance. Harper used this issue for political gain several times during the 2004 and 2006 elections, but nothing was done about it once he held the reigns of power. Remember, candidate Harper was Mr. Accountability after the inquest into the embarrassing Liberal sponsorship scandal (dating back to the Chrétien days), but stopping money flowing through legitimate businesses and foundations was apparently accountability pushed too far.
(“Accountability is vital. Let’s ensure we follow government funds through to their end-use. No need to worry about outside money coming in through the back-door of privately-held businesses and privately-founded foundations to fund political agendas. Obviously, all of that is above-board, honestly procured, and given without pretence. Now, remind me of my position on refugees and immigration, and don’t try and tell me what to do – I’m no dummy!”)
The obvious answer is intuitive: once Harper won the election, Martin’s business dealings fell out of the political spotlight and became a non-issue. The less-obvious answer is that it was allowed to dissipate; both parliament and prime minister loathe to enact legislation that might place further restrictions upon effective politicking for mountains of money. For the political establishment, such a discussion could lead to the unthinkable proposition of ending absurd personal tax credits for political party contributions. In other words, for every dollar given to a political party, a portion of it is subsidized with our federal tax dollars (75% on the first $400 given; 50% on the next $350 given; to a maximum credit of $650 on contributions over $750). Or the electorate might want further overhauls on campaign finance reform. Hat-in-hand, queue the politicians’ refrain: “Never!”
The Trudeau situation is not dissimilar from that of the Clintons with their foundation that witnessed significant foreign investment while Hillary served as Barack Obama’s Secretary of State (2008-2012), and the Clinton’s subsequent efforts to distance their family from the Clinton Foundation when Hillary won the Democratic ticket for the 2016 election. Regardless, the damage had been done. That is, the money was already with the foundation and no one can prove that it wasn’t given in good faith or that it was directly tied to political favour, though rumours, conjecture, and innuendo abounded.
Similarly, President-elect Trump has a foundation as well as a massive multi-billion dollar company that makes global business deals. He will place his business in a blind-trust, but leave it in the hands of his children – because that will ensure Trump, Sr. doesn’t meddle in business affairs or know what powerful person is leasing or buying a luxurious floor in a trumped-up tower. Trump has been an active businessman for decades. He has political and business connections the world over. So do both of the Clintons. And Trudeau. There is an inherent and obvious conflict of interest at play for all of these individuals which automatically calls all monetary dealings into question. Even if they are completely legitimate.
Thus, I ask again: how is it still legal in 2016 for a serious political contender, especially in the United States where a candidate requires at least $750,000,000 for a chance at governing from the White House, to have business interests outside of a blind-trust or within the hands of immediate family members (like Martin and now Trump); to be actively engaged on any board of governors; or have direct ties to a charitable foundation (like the Clintons, Trump, and Trudeau)? It’s legal because it very much serves the likely-maligned interests of the political and social elite.
It’s perfectly legal quid pro quo (“I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.”); enigmatic pork-barrelling; another way to conduct official business unofficially. Until the electorate demands change and remains actively engaged in the matter, the elite will continue to prosper through completely legal transactions even though most of us believe those transactions do not pass the ethical smell-test. And we will continue to read newspaper articles highlighting the obvious for the social media horde to devour and rage against. For, like, the next thirty seconds.