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The PM’s nannies: In politics, people remember the little things

Justin Trudeau with his wife Sophie Gregoire and children Xavier and Ella-Grace in 2013. (File)

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

In politics, it's the small things that get you. Hard consequences await those who spend too much of the public buck on a glass of juice or an overpriced hotel. Hypocrisy has a similar political cost.

After saying in the last election campaign that upper-income people like him should pay their own freight when it comes to child care, and after winning on a platform of bulking up taxpayer assistance for middle-class parents while slimming it down for the wealthy, it emerges that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has hired two government-paid nannies. Sorry, "special assistants" who will also act as "secondary caregivers" for his three young children. One of them apparently accompanied the Trudeau family to this week's climate confab in Paris.

Something about this feels wrong, particularly given the ceremony with which Mr. Trudeau announced he was donating to charity the $3,400 child benefit his family received under the previous government's policies. A few weeks later, firmly ensconced in a job that pays $330,000 a year, he is accepting far greater public largesse. If something feels like hypocrisy, that may be because it is.

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No one expects Mr. Trudeau to pay the gardener at 24 Sussex Drive, or pick up the car payments for the motorcade. He doesn't have to gas up the plane or vacuum the carpets. The most senior public servant in the land gets rather a lot paid for by the taxpayer to allow him to perform his public duties.

Had he not staked so limpid a position on child care and exploited it for considerable gain, Mr. Trudeau could have more easily argued that the singular function he occupies justifies his hiring taxpayer-supported nannies. Previous prime ministers with young children did have such help, though the same questions about the line between public and private were raised. Mr. Trudeau's spokesperson understands the optics, on Tuesday having resurrected Brian Mulroney's wan defence that the household assistants will also do other jobs.

In the coming years, the new government will surely misstep in other ways – they are only human – including on matters bigger and more important than this. For a country with a budget in the hundreds of billions of dollars, the question of the PM's nannies is petty stuff. But it's always the little things that people remember.

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