First published at Global News on December 22, 2017.
It’s official: Justin Trudeau broke the rules.
Canada’s prime minister was found guilty of violating four sections of the Conflict of Interest Act governing public office holders, stemming from two 2016 vacations on Bell’s Cay, a private island in the Bahamas owned by the Aga Khan.
Beyond the legal wrong-doing, Conservatives are no doubt rejoicing that Trudeau screwed up in the least middle class-ish way — by taking a private aircraft to vacation with a billionaire in the Caribbean.
Trudeau has always promoted himself as a voice for the middle class, but that veneer cracks under the weight of this autumn’s Liberal scandals.
From Bill Morneau’s numbered company-held French villa to Trudeau’s billionaire holidays, this seems like the first period in Canada’s political history in which the country’s elected leaders aren’t even pretending they live like ordinary Canadians.
I remember when a $16 glass of orange juice and a senator taking a loan to pay back improper expenses were all the rage.
Trudeau’s lack of judgment and foresight is lamentable, but the real scandal here is how four ethics violations effectively disappear after the prime minister stammers his way through a 15-minute-long apology press conference on a Wednesday afternoon. Five days before Christmas. While Parliament is out of session for another five-and-a-half weeks.
The ethics commissioner’s report was scathing, but didn’t impose or recommend any penalty, despite the severity of a sitting prime minister breaking federal law.
Our prime minister behaved unethically in the most literal sense of the term, but it seems that his sole punishment is a couple of days of bad news cycles. Oh, and likely a few unpleasant exchanges in Question Period in late January, too. By the time Valentine’s Day rolls around and the Trudeau family yearns for another Bahamian holiday, all will be forgotten.
But despite Trudeau’s acceptance of Commissioner Mary Dawson’s report, and his vow to do better in the future, he and his office have been trying to ignore or trivialize this misconduct for months.
In a May 10 tweet that certainly didn’t age well, Trudeau’s principal secretary, Gerald Butts, mocked the issue, saying, “MPs from all over Canada finally get a chance to ask the prime minister a question. They all ask about his Xmas vacation. It’s May.”
Trudeau himself, even while supposedly apologizing Wednesday, continued to downplay the trip by saying “family” — describing his “family vacation” with “family friend” Aga Khan — more times than I could count.
The real unanswered question is how neither Trudeau nor a single person in his office thought there might possibly be a concern with this trip.
Remember, in 2015, Trudeau advised all of his cabinet members to consult, in advance, with the ethics commissioner on trips exactly like his. As Dawson noted, Trudeau ignored his own advice.
CBC’s Rosie Barton asked Trudeau how he didn’t think his “family vacation” could have posed a problem, and, well, I’ll let his words speak for themselves:
“The fact is, we work, uh, hm— the, um— Sorry, let me just try to re-order— re-order the thoughts. We, um, worked with the, uh, lobby— Conflict of Interest Commissioner, uh, on a regular basis on a broad range of issues when the issues come up. On this issue of a family vacation with a personal friend, um, it wasn’t considered that there would be an issue there. Uh. Obviously— Obviously, there was a mistake.”
And that was after he, um, re-ordered his thoughts.
Trudeau had no personal interaction with this close family friend of his for 30 years, until, coincidentally I’m sure, he became the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.
Except for his father’s funeral in 2000, the last time before 2013 Trudeau saw the Aga Khan was when he, as a 12-year-old boy, accompanied his father, then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau, on a family vacation in Greece.
Yet after one encounter in 30 years, Trudeau and his good buddy holidayed together thrice in two years — once as Liberal leader in 2014, and twice as prime minister in 2016, when the ethical lapses occurred.
It’s undeniable that the Aga Khan, whose foundation has received more than $300 million in Canadian government money since the 1980s, has a business relationship with Canada that is relevant to the prime minister’s work. Even if they were genuinely friends, that’s all the more reason to clear the trip through Canada’s ethics channels.
With friends like these, who needs lobbyists?