It’s been a rocky second year for the Trudeau government, and ending it with a slap on the wrist from the federal ethics commissioner doesn’t help.
It’s clear that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should have been more careful about accepting family vacations on a private island owned by the Aga Khan, as he himself acknowledged while offering a contrite apology.
The problem for his government, though, goes deeper. The besetting sin of Liberals goes by the word “entitlement” — the sense that for all their talk about “ordinary Canadians,” they dwell in a separate, higher realm than the rest of us, a realm where taking a private helicopter to a private island is just the kind of thing you do when you want to get away from it all.
It’s hard for the party to shake that image. It was fed when the prime minister clung on to his “cash for access” fundraisers, before finally doing away with the practice. It reared its head when senior staffers in the Prime Minister’s Office charged hundreds of thousands of dollars in moving expenses (later withdrawn).
And, most damagingly, it appeared this fall when Finance Minister Bill Morneau neglected to report one of his private corporations, one that owned a villa in southern France, while publicly preaching tax reform.
These stumbles are a problem for the Liberal party, to be sure. More importantly, they are a problem for a government whose central message is that it wants to make sure the system serves all the people, not just a privileged few. The Liberals have seen how populism fed by a fundamental sense of economic injustice can send other countries off the rails, and they are determined to make sure Canada does not go down that path.
To succeed, though, ordinary citizens must feel their government truly has their interests at heart. “Entitlement” is another word for privilege, and if it takes root it will fatally undermine attempts at reform. The alternative is the kind of demagoguery we see growing in the United States, Europe and elsewhere.
It’s also vital that ethical standards are upheld, and are seen to be upheld. For that to happen, Ottawa needs a stronger ethics commissioner than it now has.
Unfortunately, the signs are not good. The government twice extended the mandate of outgoing ethics watchdog Mary Dawson, who faulted Trudeau on his island getaways. But its rushed, last-minute appointment of career civil servant Mario Dion to replace her is not promising.
The government would do itself and the country a favour by strengthening the role of the ethics commissioner, in consultation with other parties. The public expects a higher standard of behaviour, and politicians must deliver that or suffer the consequences.
An editorial from the Toronto Star (distributed by The Canadian Press)