February 23rd, 2024

Trudeau defends Jamaica trip as committee agrees to seek ethics watchdog’s testimony

By Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press on January 17, 2024.

The House ethics committee is set to meet today to discuss if a probe should be launched over Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's recent holiday vacation to Jamaica. Trudeau arrives to speak at a breakfast with members of the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal, in Montreal, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christinne Muschi

OTTAWA – A House of Commons committee intends to seek testimony from the federal ethics watchdog on rules regarding gifts, vacations and travel as controversy swirls around Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent trip to Jamaica.

Members of Parliament on the Commons ethics committee agreed to invite interim commissioner Konrad von Finckenstein to testify at the earliest opportunity once the House comes back from a winter break at the end of the month.

The Opposition had pushed for a special meeting Wednesday to discuss a potential probe of Trudeau’s vacation.

Liberal MPs got on board with the idea of asking von Finckenstein to appear, so long as his testimony would include a detailed explanation of the travel rules that are laid out in the Conflict of Interest Act.

It’s important for people to see how the system works so they can maintain trust in their democratic institutions, said Liberal MP Mona Fortier.

Early this month, Trudeau’s office said the prime minister’s family was staying at a location owned by family friends at no cost, after earlier saying the family would cover the cost of their stay.

Trudeau’s office said he consulted with the ethics commissioner and the family would reimburse the public for the expense of travelling on a government plane.

“Like a lot of Canadian families, we went to stay with friends for the Christmas holidays. All the rules were followed,” Trudeau said Wednesday in French during a news conference in New Brunswick.

Conservative ethics critic Michael Barrett said everyone is entitled to a vacation, but the problem is the changing narrative coming from the Prime Minister’s Office.

“This is incredibly problematic,” Barrett said.

He said he wants to know whether Trudeau misled von Finckenstein in seeking advice about the trip.

“As per standard practice, the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner was consulted prior to the travel to ensure that the rules were followed,” a spokesperson for the prime minister, Mohammad Hussain, said in a statement last week.

“Any allegation that we would mislead the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner is categorically false.”

Barrett said he asked the acting commissioner’s office for its communications with Trudeau’s office about the trip, but his request was denied.

And rightfully so, Liberal MP Pam Damoff argued during a committee hearing Wednesday. Such conversations need to remain private so that politicians can feel comfortable when seeking advice, Damoff said.

The Conflict of Interest Act allows politicians to accept gifts and other advantages only from relatives or family friends with whom they have a well-documented close bond. Trudeau ran afoul of that rule when he was a guest of the Aga Khan in late 2016.

It’s time for the rules to change, New Democrats argue.

“The Liberals and Conservatives both point fingers at each other when they both get favours from their rich friends but then refuse to change the rules as it benefits both of them and the ultra-rich,” NDP House leader Peter Julian said in a statement.

“New Democrats want to see a review of the Conflict of Interest Act to actually crack down on corporate and lobbyist influence in politics, so it’s everyday Canadians who get ahead, not the ultra-wealthy.”

Earlier this month, the National Post reported that Trudeau was staying at a luxury estate owned by his longtime friend Peter Green. The Canadian Press has not independently verified the information, and officials have declined to confirm where Trudeau was staying.

Liberal MPs said they weren’t opposed to the idea of inviting acting commissioner Konrad von Finckenstein to testify, so long as he explains how the travel rules in the law are supposed to work.

Any investigation demands a deeper understanding of the law to avoid damaging the public trust, Fortier said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 17, 2024.

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