Why can’t prime ministers take private flights?

If Justin Trudeau read up on the recent history of conflict-of-interest law, he’d see a past Liberal government forced to tighten up rules for politicians

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Hadrien, Ella-Grace and his wife Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau board a government plane Saturday, November 28, 2015. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Hadrien, Ella-Grace and his wife Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau board a government plane Saturday, November 28, 2015. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

A federal politician comes under fire for hitching a ride on a private aircraft belonging to a rich friend, and staunchly defends himself. “These are friends of mine,” he says, “And I intend, as would all of you, to take holidays with my friends.”

That wasn’t Justin Trudeau in 2017 defending his visit by private helicopter to the Aga Khan’s personal island in the Bahamas. It was instead Paul Martin, on the cusp of becoming prime minister in late 2003, batting away questions about trips on his well-heeled friends’ corporate jets.

The Conflict of Interest Act—the law that governs the conduct of public office holders in Canada—contains one passage that is causing Trudeau problems related to his recent visit to the wealthy Ismaili spiritual leader and longtime family friend. Rule 12 in the Act states, “No minister of the Crown, minister of state or parliamentary secretary, no member of his or her family and no ministerial adviser or ministerial staff 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.”

A rule forbidding elected officials from hitching rides on private planes seems oddly specific, doesn’t it? As it turns out, the history and origin of that section of the Act makes the current controversy over Trudeau’s vacation—which he has emphasized repeatedly was a private family trip with a longtime friend—feel like déjà vu.

RELATED: Trudeau welcomes questions on Aga Khan visit

In the fall of 2003, just as Jean Chrétien’s time as prime minister was coming to a close and Martin was poised to take over, there was a blizzard of controversies over high-ranking politicians accepting travel freebies from friends.

In October, it emerged that five ministers in Chrétien’s cabinet, including health minister Allan Rock, had at various times over several years prior stayed at a fishing lodge owned by the wealthy Irving clan in New Brunswick, or taken flights on the family’s private jet. At the time, the conflict of interest code—it was not yet a law, simply rules enforced by the authority of the Prime Minister’s Office—prohibited elected officials from accepting “gifts, hospitality or other benefits” worth more than $200 without disclosing them. The opposition frothed over the perceived violations. Howard Wilson, the federal ethics counsellor, largely cleared the politicians of any wrongdoing, simply advising Rock—who had since become industry minister—to abstain from direct dealings with the Irving oil and shipbuilding interests for a year, and to pay for his trip.

Then, in December, just before Martin was to take over as PM, it emerged that when he was finance minister, he’d taken a handful of flights on private corporate jets owned by friends. Martin reimbursed them for the travel—for which they later got slaps on the wrist, because Transport Canada rules prohibited payment for passenger transportation on private aircraft—but insisted he’d done nothing wrong, defending himself on the grounds that he was merely socializing with personal friends.

Still, as soon as he took office, Martin tightened the conflict of interest code to specifically prohibit rides on private or chartered aircraft. The wording was nearly identical to the current rule, except that it required both “exceptional circumstances” and prior approval of the ethics commissioner.

It wasn’t until the early days of Stephen Harper’s government that the code became law, when the Conflict of Interest Act came into effect in July 2007. There was a subtle change in the wording of that rule then: this time it only called for exceptional circumstances or prior approval. One possibility is that the drafters of the law wanted to allow politicians caught in emergency circumstances to, for instance, hop aboard a helicopter owned by a mining company to check out a devastating forest fire without having to jump through a bunch of bureaucratic hoops first.

It’s safe to say, however, that a posh family vacation on a balmy isle is not much of an emergency, and Trudeau may now regret not learning from recent Liberal history with that one pesky clause.


Why can’t prime ministers take private flights?

  1. Of course there was also Peter Mackay….

    No, seriously folks…..we are like the guy in the restaurant always checking the waiter’s addition

    Enough already with the nit-picking and cheese-paring.

    If we want to save money then get rid of the senate, or the GG and Lts G, or the military………..not this kind of petty stuff.

    • Right On EmilyONE ! These cunning servatives are always trying to make something out of nothing! When they do the same thing it,s no big deal.

    • Yes and isn’t this the first time you and others have raised the issue of Peter McKay catching a ride on a Canadian Forces helicopter to a fishing trip (insert sarcasm here) because my gawd you guys beat this drum until it had a hole in it. So let’s get this straight….you nit-picked and cheese-pared the Peter McKay ride to death but NOW Canadians should find something better to fill their time with because it is Justin Trudeau and he got a ride to a private island with a lobbyist. Didn’t Justin learn anything from your nit-picking and cheese-pairing behavior over the Peter McKay debacle? My gawd Emily, you really gave that one your all and still JT did his entitlement dance. He didn’t learn anything about how nasty partisans can be. Can’t say you didn’t do your best all those Harp years to show him. I do love your new efforts to protect though….telling the press to mind their own business. I don’t think it is going to work but it gets an “A” for pure balls.

  2. MacLeans- I remember reading Macleans when I was a kid in the fifties . Why don’t you talk about something important like the high cost of drugs , instead of this scandal mongering.

    • If the politicians didn’t create some scandal, there would be nothing to write deary.

      • write about the high cost of drugs ,duh .

        • Saskatchewan has a provincial medication program. Canada could have one. If there was a will, there would be a way. Buy in bulk and the country gets a better deal. Your government makes those decisions. The same thing with other national social programs like dental and glasses programs.

  3. Dear Mr. Trudeau, i live in St John’s NL., and we have a Belle Island too just 15 min drive away, but you can get a ferry to our beautiful Belle Island most anytime, but i will tell you, if the ice blocks the tickle in the winter, chances are you may not be able to visit, because the only other way you can get there, is walk across on the ice, or have a helicopter flight over. The helicopter is paid for, by the provincial government, so if you happen to come to St. John’s and try to go to our beautiful Belle Island in the Feb or March, ‘Cancel’, because chances are, you may have to use a provincial government helicopter to get there because of the ice blocking the tickle, just saying, don’t want to find yourself into another conflict of interest. LOL

    • My gosh aren’t you just too cute. There are so many problems with your invitation. First of all, you live in Canada and our PM is a high fligher. St. John’s is fabulous but you don’t have a private yacht. Third, you aren’t a billionaire with a private island. Fourth, you can’t network with other really rich people who can put out cash to make it worth his while. Those access for cash dinners, etc. Were to raise money. Don’t get discouraged. They say he has no plans to visit your area because he did so well there in the election but hey if the polls drop, he might have to come by. Good luck with that. Loved the time I spent in Newfoundland. It is a great province. St. John’s really is a wonderful place.

  4. Not sure if the author is looking at the line ups to see this guy, and you know what else we are not talking about, the conservative leadership. The only one got air from the conservative leadership today, Kelly and Nick and there ‘Spanish Fly Trap’.

  5. Could someone provide the alternative to going to the island by private plane/helicopter? I haven’t been able to find the schedule for commercial flights going there – probably because commercial planes don’t fly to private island hideaways. Is there a runway on the island that would accommodate the government jet?
    Would the lack of any other means of getting to the location not qualify as an “exceptional circumstance”? Unless you think he should have swum there?

    • All Trudeau needed to do was follow his own well documented process and seek approval before his vacation. That’s all!

      After-all — Trudeau had the foresight to record Canada’s “Happy Sesquincentennial Message” to be played to us while he was away on vacation. Did he not have the foresight to make the appropriate accommodations for his vacation?

    • Perhaps he could have used a canoe like his Dad.

    • The Canadian military has helicopters.

  6. what did the critics wanted him to do ? swim?

    • No, I believe they either wanted him to clear it with the ethics commissioner which is the accepted practice or book a military helicopter as he has the right to do. Otherwise, he is accepting a gift from a lobbyist….no different than your doctor accepting a gift from a pharmaceutical company…not ethical and not palatable because people perceive that gifts create an environment of obligation. The leader of a country should never be put in an environment where he perceived to be obliged. Never mind, the safety issues. There is a reason Trudeau flies on a Canadian military plane or we could just book him a regular flight.

  7. Just another corrupt liberal elitist that doesn’t think rules apply to him. Lock him up.

  8. People are really tired of this non-story. The PM is not getting asked questions about this in the town halls he is doing and he’s on his 4th one at least by now. By the way, the one in Halifax was supposed to be in a venue that accommodates 1000 people but had to be moved to an arena of 3000 seats to accommodate everyone who wanted to attend.

    A much more interesting story would be why MPs are allowed to accept free trips to Israel from the Centre for Israel and Jewish Advocacy (CIJA). Oh and guess what, they don’t hear the Palestinian side of the story when they go on these trips.

    The media drags on these non-issues for 2 weeks past its best before date and then wonders why people won’t pay for their publications.

    • Probably because its an issue of legality.