Chris Selley: At Queen’s Park, a vision of Trudeau’s future
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne shuffled her Cabinet slightly on Thursday — of necessity, thanks to the departure of Community Affairs and Correctional Services Minister David Orazietti. It was purely housekeeping. It won’t alter Wynne’s political fortunes.
There are nevertheless echoes of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s own, bigger shuffle this week. Orazietti said he left politics for family reasons, but he did so under a big cartoon stink cloud: the revelation that 23-year-old Adam Capayhad been held in solitary confinement awaiting trial for an unconscionable four years, and the minister’s refusal to intervene.
“That is a decision that is made by the individuals operating our jails,” Orazietti said on an October Tuesday. A howl of outrage ensured. And by the Wednesday, wouldn’t you know it, Capay was out of solitary.
Incidents like this hurt staggering end-of-days governments like Wynne’s far more than they would hurt a relatively morning-fresh government like Trudeau’s. If Capay had been in a federal institution, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale might have gotten away with “leave it to the professionals.” But it is remarkable, surely, how much the Liberals have been hurting themselves.
Stuck with an unfeasible, unserious promise to conduct the 2019 election under something other than the first-past-the-post system, they needed to deftly manage down, first, expectations, and second, the inevitable disappointment. Instead they armed Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef with the brand of insulting dumb-dumb talking points that only made things worse for the Conservatives in the latter days of Stephen Harper.
It was bewildering political malpractice. Monsef impugned the electoral reform committee’s work, misrepresented its mandate, suggested Canadians weren’t smart enough to understand proportional representation. And on Wednesday, Trudeau shuffled Monsef to status of women. Provided with non-terrible advice, her replacement, Karine Gould, might not look quite so stupid. But the damage has been done: embarrassments like this build up like water behind a dam, and when it bursts we see them all again.
Electoral reform was always going to be a problem. But they didn’t need to invent new ones. For example, they didn’t need to introduce a bespoke set of ethics rules that they knew they had no intention of following. “There should be no preferential access to government, or appearance of preferential access, accorded to individuals or organizations because they have made financial contributions,” ministers were instructed.
They all joined hands, yelled “break!” and scattered to various fundraisers that gave the appearance of according preferential access for money — to a Chinese billionaire who wants to open a bank; to the chairman of a pharmaceutical giant which both lobbies and is suing the federal government; and to many, many others.
Likewise, the Ontario Liberals defended the province’s practically unregulated fundraising situation long past the point of tenability. Rare was the beneficiary of a government decision that didn’t pop up in the donations database, and all Team Wynne could muster in defence were excuses that voters wouldn’t accept from their pre-schoolers: it’s legal and everyone else does it. That defence is now Trudeau’s, and it looks rotten on him.
Most Canadian governments end in scandal and disappointment, of course
Trudeau could have consulted the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner about his plans to vacation for free on the Aga Khan’s private Bahamian island. Whatever her opinion, he could have decided it just wasn’t worth the optics: opulence isn’t a great look on a leader, and the Aga Khan Foundation receives hundreds of millions of dollars in Canadian taxpayer money.
Failing that, he could have said in advance where he was going. Failing that, he could have said, immediately afterwards, where he had been. And failing that, when it was clear the jig was up, Team Trudeau could have come clean instead of sequentially confirming each detail as the National Post unearthed it.
Oh, and one of them could have read the federal Conflict of Interest Act, which prohibits any minister of the Crown or family member to “accept travel on non-commercial chartered or private aircraft” except in his “capacity as a public office holder or in exceptional circumstances or with the prior approval of the (Conflict of Interest) Commissioner.”
Trudeau admitted Thursday the Prime Minister transferred from Nassau to the Aga Khan’s Island on his private helicopter. He said he didn’t see a problem.
Oh, well. You can pour that in behind the dam too.
It’s not hard to imagine what the end days of Trudeau’s government will look like. You just have to look at Queen’s Park: public exasperation at entitlement, excuse-making, ludicrous ethical “lapses,” maybe one or two criminal charges. The many Queen’s Park veterans behind the scenes in Ottawa, including Trudeau’s principal secretary Gerald Butts, know exactly what that looks like. You would think they might have learned some lessons.
Most Canadian governments end in scandal and disappointment, of course. But Trudeau strutted to power full of Canadians’ transformational hopes and dreams in a way few others have. If people determine he’s more or less just like all the others, he and his mates will fall to earth with an even bigger thud than his predecessors.
National Post by Chris Selley
Jan 12th 2017