Just a few days before Christmas, outgoing Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson released her devastating report deeming the Prime Minister guilty of breaking four sections of the federal Conflict of Interest Act. The most noteworthy aspect of Mr. Trudeau’s response was its extremely cavalier nature.

“A friend is a friend is a friend”, repeated Mr. Trudeau when confronted with the Commissioner’s verdict. When it comes to matters of ethics, Mr. Trudeau seems to give little importance to the blame being laid at his feet. For the first time, a Prime Minister has been caught breaking the law and yet he is behaving as though it were an issue of minor significance. 

In Parliament, this week, Conservative House Leader Candice Bergen questioned the Prime Minister’s “moral fortitude” as he continued to hide behind his own House Leader and failed to stand up himself. This is in sharp contrast to the epic battles between former opposition Leader Tom Mulcair and then Prime Minister Harper. No matter how heated the debate, Harper stood and answered. Mr. Trudeau doesn’t seem to understand that this is about his personal morality, not that of some stand-in. You can’t sub-contract Ethics.

Mr. Trudeau has, to say the least, a somewhat off-hand attitude to questions of ethics. His flippancy leaves us with the impression that he takes these matters lightly when, au contraire, they should be viewed with the utmost seriousness.

In addition to the free vacation (Oops, “I’ll ask next time”), Mr Trudeau has acted carelessly in other matters of ethics. We all remember the richly paid speeches before he was elected leader of the Liberal party. After he became Leader, Mr. Trudeau admitted that he had been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by registered charities for speeches made to these groups (Oops, “I’ll reimburse”). Only when the cash-for-access Liberal fundraising scheme was made public did he finally say he’d put an end to the practice (Oops, “I will not do it again”). 

Mr. Trudeau is always willing to reimburse or make amends when he is shown to be at fault. The problem is that these situations should not occur in the first place. It seems a minimum requirement that our Prime Minister stay clear of ethical violations.

In the Aga Khan matter, not only did Mr. Trudeau violate provisions of the Code of ethics and the Conflict of Interest Act, but he did so without showing much remorse.

Such ethical nonchalance betrays a character flaw. It shows a lack of judgment that is unacceptable from someone who holds the highest office in the land and whose behaviour should be exemplary in order to remain worthy of Canadians’ trust.

Through his repeated ethical lapses, the Prime Minister demonstrates that he either does not know much about ethics or worse that he does not care. His ambiguous rapport with the ethical versus the unethical is not only objectionable but comes at a price. 

In our times, flippant people speak in discussions or media scrums with the least amount of effort possible while aiming to dismiss the questioner’s argument. They adopt a certain sang-froid to place themselves, or so they believe, above the fray. In fact, they are flaunting their power, which is the very foundation of their legitimacy. There is no offhandedness without power, nor is there offhandedness without legitimacy. It is thus this power, coupled with legitimacy that emboldens these people to act flippantly and perform trivial gestures that speak volumes, without ever having to open their mouths or offer a well-developed answer. 

Unfortunately, ethical flippancy does have an effect. It directly contributes to reinforcing cynicism and the already low regard that citizens have for politicians. We can expect that this regard will not improve as long as offhandedness is not curbed and politicians continue to offer only pirouettes intended to avoid answering rather than responding to legitimately raised questions. 

Finally, in the days following the release of the Commissioner’s report, some MPs asked that a fine be included in the next version of the Code of ethics. This is not a good idea. It would only demonstrate that ethics are for sale. Mr. Trudeau cannot repurchase Canadians’ trust by merely paying a meaningless fine. If the Prime Minister is serious when he says he assumes personal responsibility for spending hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayers’ money for his illegal trip, the starting point to redemption is personally paying back fully what he took from them.

In matters of ethics, walking the walk is far more impressive then talking the talk. 

The Prime Minister should aim at the highest standards both in his respect of the ethical code and in his public response to being caught in contravention. 

« I will have my future travel plans approved by the commissioner » is just not enough.

About the author

René Villemure is an ethicist, international speaker and the president of Éthikos. 

Over the years, he has given more than 675 lectures, taught over 65,000 people in more than 700 organizations around the world, and participated in over 375 media interviews, in French and English.

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