Opposition MPs are cheerfully beating up the Prime Minister over his family’s post-Christmas vacation.
They contend he violated conflict-of-interest rules by, first, accepting the invitation of the Aga Khan to be his guests on his private island in the Bahamas, and, second, by travelling on their host’s private helicopter between Nassau and Bell Island, 120 kilometres away, without obtaining approval in advance from the Commons conflict of interest and ethics commissioner.
This may seem silly, but both Conservative and NDP MPs have demanded that Commissioner Mary Dawson conduct an inquiry into the PM’s holiday.
A case can be made (as I suggested last week) that Justin Trudeau was politically ill-advised to vacation with one of the richest men in the world at a time when he needs to be reinforcing his and his party’s devotion to middle-class values. Politically, he should have stayed home over Christmas and done what he started to do only last week – travelling across Canada to meet restive voters in their natural habitat, Tim Hortons.
But to suggest he violated either the Conflict of Interest Act or the MPs’ Conflict of Interest Code is silliness.
Public office holders, such as the PM and his ministers, are not permitted, to “accept any gift or other advantage ... that might reasonably be seen to have been given to influence the public office holder in the exercise of an official power, duty or function.”
The hospitality on Bell Island would be an “advantage.” And the Aga Khan, whose foundation receives foreign aid money from Ottawa, is someone who might conceivably want to influence the prime minister.
But the Conflict of Interest Act contains an exception that specifically allows public office holders and family members to accept gifts or advantages from relatives and personal friends. The Aga Khan has been a friend of the Trudeau family for roughly 40 years.
The helicopter ride between Nassau and Bell Island is a bit different. Section 12 of the Conflict of Interest Act provides that: “No minister of the Crown ,,, shall accept travel on non-commercial chartered or private aircraft for any purpose unless required in his or her capacity as a public office holder or in exceptional circumstances or with the prior approval of the Commissioner.”
For security reasons, the prime minister and his family no longer fly commercial. That’s become accepted practice. The Trudeaus flew to Nassau in an RCAF Challenger. On arrival, they boarded the Aga Khan’s helicopter for the flight to the island. An alternative would have been to charter a boat for the four- or five-hour trip – an alternative that would have set off alarm bells among his RCMP security people.
The PMO will surely make the argument to the ethics commissioner that use of the helicopter was required in Trudeau’s capacity as prime minister, or that these were exceptional circumstances given the lack of secure alternatives.
The opposition members who want Mary Dawson to conduct an inquiry have focussed on the fact that Trudeau did not apply to the commissioner for advance approval to travel in the Aga Khan’s helicopter. And that omission, they contend, put him in violation of the conflict of interest rules.
I can imagine the scene when the Trudeau family arrived in Nassau. It was Boxing Day, and he is on the phone to Ottawa. “Hello, Mary Dawson? Justin Trudeau here. Yes, the prime minister. Look, I’m in Nassau and I’ve got my wife and kids with me. … Yes, they’re all fine. … Yes, a good Christmas, thank you for asking.
“I’m sorry to bother you at home on the holiday, but I’m calling because we just got off the Challenger and now we need get to the Aga Khan’s island. He’s sent a helicopter for us, but I’ve been informed we cannot take it without your blessing. Will you give it? Sophie and the kids will be so disappointed. Pretty please! I promise never to offend again….”