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The Aga Khan trip and a glimpse into Trudeau’s bad judgment

Stephen Maher: Taking a billionaire’s hospitality is so obviously wrong, it makes you wonder: What else is the PM messing up?
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with the Aga Khan on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 17, 2016. Federal ethics commissioner Mary Dawson has concluded that Trudeau violated conflict of interest rules when he vacationed last Christmas at the private Bahamian island owned by the Aga Khan. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with the Aga Khan on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 17, 2016. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick)

I have often tried to imagine the conversations that took place between Justin Trudeau and his senior officials when the Prime Minister was planning his family’s Christmas last year.

Trudeau: “Well, I’ve decided that I’m going to take the family to the Aga Khan’s private island.”

Senior official: “Boss, I know how much you need a vacation, and the kids, too, bless their hearts. But we don’t think you should go to that island. There are a lot of legal and ethical questions, and it just wouldn’t look good. In fact, I was talking to another senior official about it, and we both think…”

Trudeau: “Thanks. Great. I get it, but we’re going. He’s an old family friend. Don’t worry about it.”

Senior official: “Well, you’re the boss. We think that if you are going to do it, we should talk to the ethics commissioner, get it cleared, and also draw up a comms plan. It’s sure to leak out eventually. Better if we tell people rather than have them learn it from David Akin or someone even worse.”

Trudeau: “Do you like this blue tie better or the red one?”

I only get so far in the scenario before I can’t figure out what Trudeau’s lines are. The more you know about how government works, the more bizarre the whole thing seems.

To be clear, I don’t think there was any dirty quid pro quo. I don’t think that the wealthy prince and Trudeau had a deal to exchange tax dollars for a holiday. I don’t imagine they haggled, negotiating a private room for Seamus O’Regan in exchange for a larger grant for the Global Centre for Pluralism.

READ MORE: Friends! Welcome to Justin Trudeau’s ethical island

But the Prime Minister shouldn’t even think about putting himself in the position that we need wonder about that kind of thing. Aga Khan Foundation Canada received almost $50 million in federal funding in 2016. Trudeau controls the purse strings. He did not recuse himself from business meetings.

By staying on the island—his family went three times—Trudeau violated four provisions of the conflict of interest act, accepting free holidays that “might reasonably be seen to have been given to influence Mr. Trudeau.”

I would have thought that Trudeau would have imposed a higher standard on himself, avoiding accepting extravagant overnight hospitality from any billionaire, whether or not they happen to be doing business with the government.

Perhaps 10 years of the grim rectitude of Stephen Harper distorted my sense of what kind of freebies our politicians might take. I am glad that we no longer need fear that CSIS might lock up the Raging Grannies, but this Trudeau business is enough to make one nostalgic for Harper’s abstemiousness.

I agreed with Rona Ambrose when she tweeted: “Justin Trudeau knew what he did was against the law. All he had to do was say no, but he couldn’t resist the billionaire lifestyle.”

I was surprised to later learn that she was making her criticism from a yacht belonging to an Alberta billionaire. Ambrose was on her way out of politics, and she didn’t have the power to sign over millions of dollars, but it was sick-making too that both our Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition couldn’t get through the holidays without accepting a billionaire’s hospitality.

It makes me wonder whether it is naive to expect our leaders to pay for their own trips.

This is a long tradition in Canadian politics of politicians taking free stuff from rich people who do business of the government.

Rich people want to spend time with politicians, because politicians have power. Note that Trudeau’s old family friend only made the island available to him after he became a party leader.

I see no good excuse for any of this, but there is no shortage of bad excuses. One of the four sections of the act that Trudeau violated with his trip was Section 12, which forbids taking free trips on private aircraft. This section was brought in after four of Jean Chretien’s cabinet ministers were found to have taken free trips to an Irving family salmon camp in New Brunswick.

Trudeau’s lawyers argued that he didn’t violate Section 12 because it was an exceptional circumstance. After all, the Aga Khan’s island is an island, and therefore it’s obviously exceptional. Mary Dawson didn’t buy that.

They also argued that since the French section of the act refers to “avions,” meaning airplanes, that doesn’t include helicopters. Obviously Trudeau, a Francophone, couldn’t have been expected to know that helicopters were forbidden!

Nothing in the affair has inspired confidence in the young man running our country. He violated four sections of an act that his highly paid staffers must have known he was going to violate. He didn’t tell Canadians about his trip until journalists learned about it. His highly paid lawyers made ridiculous, legalistic arguments in a vain attempt to avoid taking responsibility, and when he apologized for it, he couldn’t  bring himself to say why what he did was wrong, and sounded like a highly trained but malfunctioning political robot.

This is all disappointing, not because it is hugely important in itself, but because it suggests a worrying lack of judgment. If he messed this up, what else is he messing up?

Observing politics is like watching a play where most of the action takes place behind the curtain while the players repeatedly tell us what a great job everyone is doing. But every now and then, when a stagehand inadvertently forgets to draw the curtain shut, we get a glimpse of the real business.

In this case, what we see is Trudeau with his pants around his knees. I feel bad for his team and the volunteers and voters who placed their hopes in him, who are now making absurd excuses for him, and I hope he has learned a valuable lesson.

But he might not have, because I doubt he is going to pay much of a political price for it. Trudeau messed up, but when we spend most of our time worrying about Donald Trump, it’s hard to stay focused on free holidays.

Trump’s White House is full of open conflicts of interest much worse than anything in Trudeau’s world. The president of the United States seems to be doing everything he can to get money out of his government, charging top rates for secret service agents to stay at his own properties, for example.

Worse, he has put former CEOs in charge of deregulating industries that threaten the public interest. The secretary of state, by all accounts one of his most reasonable Cabinet members, is the former CEO of Exxon, the company that covered up climate change. These are not even the worse things about Trump. He is foolishly engaged in nuclear brinksmanship. His presidency is possible because of racism. And the former director of national intelligence believes the president is a Russian asset.

In the face of all that, I find it hard to care too much about Trudeau’s trip, and I don’t see why most voters will either.

I hope he doesn’t draw the wrong lesson from that.