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.