Justin Trudeau for prime minister? Really? He’s got no executive experience, no experience of any kind that is remotely adjacent to being leader of a G8 country. There are parts of Canada in which his last name is still automatically followed with a “ptooie” when spoken. He has occasionally inserted his foot so far into his mouth that the Jaws of Life were required. Liberals will nod when you say all this and come back confidently with: “But he fills rooms.”
Well, he does do that, but maybe sometimes not enough. On June 14, QMI Agency got hold of a letter to the company that books Trudeau as a speaker; in it, Susan Buck, a board member for a New Brunswick charity that buys furniture for nursing homes and hospices, complained that her group had lost money on a 2012 event they paid Trudeau $20,000 to attend. “[It] was a huge disappointment and a financial loss for our organization,” Buck said. “A refund of the fees charged would meet our needs and would provide a positive public impression.”
This “Give back the money and maybe ya won’t have a little political accident” language instantly split the peanut gallery between those who thought it was horrible for Trudeau to take the money in the first place and those who thought it was horrible for a non-profit to blackmail a supplier for a refund because of their own poor planning. A few days later, it became public that the Prime Minister’s Office was circulating details of other high-paid talks Trudeau had given. Some excitable “communications officer” in the PMO, apparently unaware of how the whole communicating-with-the-press thingie works, sent material to the Barrie Advance “on background” without actually securing the paper’s agreement that it wouldn’t identify the source.
So whom to be angry at? (There is not much point in reading a newsmagazine if the answer is “nobody,” right?) The entire situation is full of grey areas. There is no question that a member of Parliament has every right to pursue a second occupation as long as he is taking care of the day job of representing voters. Trudeau acquired a justified reputation for playing hooky from the House of Commons during his leadership campaign, but as an ordinary private member, he was actually quite assiduous in turning up for votes.
Some Conservative MPs have questioned whether it is ethical at all for an elected official to charge organizations, particularly charitable ones, for mere public speaking. (They seem to have a clean bill of health within their own caucus.) The theme of Trudeau’s talk to the furniture-for-oldies outfit was youth activism; there was never any partisan content per se, Trudeau says. If Trudeau were a performing elocutionist or a folksinger, no one would have a problem with him addressing an audience for money; since he seems to have actually been marketed largely as a sort of entertainer-raconteur, this might be relevant. On the other hand, all of the organizations that hired Trudeau for this kind of thing have political interests, and if his fees for yukking it up at a rubber-chicken dinner got too ridiculous, it is easy to see how a mockery could be made of our political fundraising regulations.
What’s hard to figure either way is how the charity can be any less culpable, at best, than Trudeau himself. If his acceptance of a fee is an inappropriate use of elected office, or represents filching from the disadvantaged, the guilt of the operators of the Grace Foundation cannot possibly be any smaller than Trudeau’s. He didn’t break in through a window and pry open the safe for the $20,000.
In the meantime, the Prime Minister’s Office has been caught red-handed in a political hit job on the leader of an opposition party. The timing is awkward. It has not been two weeks since Alberta Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber walked out of caucus to protest the heavy-handedness of the PMO, which had used procedural rough stuff in committee to protect its top staff, among others, from Rathgeber’s proposal for annual public salary disclosure.
The PMO’s “exempt staff” are paid from the public treasury, but are permitted to provide an overtly partisan “perspective” to the PM while he takes advice from the non-partisan civil service. Their existence is an acknowledgment that a prime minister requires knowledge of the electoral mood—i.e., that it is not reasonable to expect him to completely neglect political survival while he works for Canada. Partisan advice given at our expense, however, is one thing: a big dirty tricks shop, and one that bungles a leak to press at that, is quite another.
On the web: For more Colby Cosh, visit his blog at macleans.ca/colbycosh