Friends! Welcome to Justin Trudeau’s ethical island

The general rule is that public officeholders should not receive anything they could not ordinarily buy, but the details allow for all kinds of room to dodge or distract
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with the media in the foyer of the House of Commons following the release of an ethics report in Ottawa on Wednesday December 20, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

The ethics commissioner’s report into Justin Trudeau’s family vacation on the private island of a rich spiritual leader is the sort of thing that will discourage good people from entering into politics. Who will ever want to run for high office again, knowing the time-honoured option of an occasional tropical getaway to the sprawling demesne of a vaguely spiritual host who periodically petitions the federal government for grants-in-kind will forever be foreclosed?

I kid. Probably this sort of situation won’t come up, in precisely the same form, again. In its details, this whole thing is Byzantine in the intricacy of its silliness. Part of Mary Dawson’s ruling—which she took longer to deliver than Prime Ministers Tupper, Turner, Campbell and Clark took to be prime minister—hinges on her decision that the Aga Khan cannot be considered a “friend” of Justin Trudeau’s within the meaning of the Conflict of Interest Act. Mostly contrite in the lobby of the House of Commons, the prime minister still insisted the Aga Khan is indeed a friend.

I’m never good on this kind of story, so I’m still trying to figure out why it could matter. The Aga Khan’s foundation was registered to lobby with the PMO. It had benefited from government spending decisions before (including under Trudeau’s predecessor, Stephen Harper) and stood to do so again. But it would be okay for him to bestow repeated gifts on Trudeau’s family—including one that becomes more precious the longer you’re in public life, which is the gift of privacy and isolation—if they were demonstrably pals? The ethically prophylactic solution, I guess, is to elect leaders who maintain active friendships with the largest possible number of plutocrats.

Prime Minister, where have you been?

My pal Tex’s ranch! Mustn’t fall out of touch!

But the details, while intriguing, are to some extent a distraction. They allow for all kinds of room to dodge or distract (“It’s not as though the Aga Khan is a bad guy, after all“). Meanwhile the general rule is simple: public officeholders should not be given, or at least they should not accept, what they could not ordinarily buy. The reason for this is that nothing is free, and if there is no dollar cost, then the debt will be the baser currency of favours owed. And, as Justin Trudeau used to feel free to explain to his ministers, it doesn’t even matter if favours are thought to be owed between the protagonists in such a drama: if a reasonable outside observer could construe the situation as to leave a debt on one side or the other, that’s enough to cast doubt on the integrity of the transaction.

READ: Trudeau talks about ‘quality family time’ on the Aga Khan’s island

It’s tedious to have to do all this paperwork and turn down experiences that might be fun! It is a drag that bad things happened in Canada—the sponsorship scandal, Karlheinz Schreiber, the deep morass of collusion in the Quebec construction industry—that have led to all sorts of ethics rules and constraints and checks. But the alternative to all these ethical belts and suspenders is, precisely, a world in which “who you know in the PMO” can affect one’s chances of getting ahead.

In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare has several characters muse about why it’s important to uphold transparent contract law, even if it means granting Shylock his bloody bond in his dispute with Antonio. Even Antonio, when it looks like he’ll come up on the losing end of the deal, gets it: “The duke cannot deny the course of law: For the commodity that strangers have/ With us in Venice, if it be denied,/ Will much impeach the justice of his state;/ Since that the trade and profit of the city/ Consisteth of all nations.”

In other words: you can’t deny a stranger justice, because if you did, strangers from around the world would understand that this trading nation is no place to expect justice. Exactly so, in a trading nation like Canada. The collapse of our nearest neighbour and largest trading partner into an abject crony state offers competitive advantage only to the extent Canada refuses to follow suit.

There are risks all over. As the Trudeau government ramps up spending on infrastructure, often involving large investors whose principals the PM likes to cajole in person, everyone will need to ensure there is no hint of back-scratching and log-rolling. The scale of the temptation is vast. As the government’s “open, transparent and merit-based appointment process” requires thousands of Canadians to apply in person for plum government jobs—actually, I’m not sure what will happen as a result of that, but there seems to be room for concern. For every senator, official, judge, board member or other public figure who’s been selected through the new process, there’ve been several more who’ve been turned down, may hope to try again, and in the meantime are conscious of themselves as petitioners for a government favour. And on a day like today, that’s worth thinking about.