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Opinion Billionaires and politicians don’t mix on vacation

If only Justin Trudeau had consulted with that other tightrope walker of pragmatic progressivism, Tony Blair, before he set out on his sketchy family vacation to a private island owned by the Aga Khan. He might have learned that vacationing at the luxury homes of rich acquaintances is not the best look for a man of the people.

The former British prime minister irked friend and foe alike with his holiday trips hosted by famous chums such as singer Cliff Richard, who once offered sanctuary to Mr. Blair because he looked "gaunt and tired" in the wake of the Iraq war. Dealing with dodgy dossiers will age a man, as we've discovered.

But it was a 2004 trip to Silvio Berlusconi's Sardinian villa, culminating in a fireworks display spelling out "Viva Tony," that really landed Mr. Blair, as the Guardian newspaper put it at the time, "nella merda."

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Translated, that means "in deep doo-doo." This is also where Mr. Trudeau finds himself at the moment, trying desperately to wipe the residue of political scandal off his shoe. The Prime Minister broke the law when he and his family accepted two freebie trips to the Aga Khan's vacation home in the Bahamas, Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson ruled this week. Mr. Trudeau had argued that the vacations were not in breach of ethics rules, as they were the gift of a friend. But Ms. Dawson noted that there had been "no personal or private interactions" between Mr. Trudeau and the Aga Khan for 30 years before he became Liberal Leader (with the exception of Pierre Trudeau's funeral in 2000.)

Worse, in terms of optics, is the perception of a possible conflict. As Ms. Dawson's report notes, "there was ongoing official business between the Government of Canada and the Aga Khan at the time each invitation was accepted … the vacations accepted by Mr. Trudeau or his family might reasonably be seen to have been given to influence Mr. Trudeau." Could the Prime Minister really be so clueless as to not recognize that this might pose a problem? Or was he just blinded by the mirrored radiance of his own moral worth? As my colleague Campbell Clark wrote, "Mr. Trudeau has a tendency to think he's a good guy and that everyone should see him that way."

I'm sure Tony Blair thought the same in 2004, as he stood next to the noxiously right-wing prime minister of Italy, who wore a handkerchief to hide his freshly dug hair plugs. The fallout from Mr. Blair's various mooch-stays was so great that his beleaguered successor, Gordon Brown, was forced to holiday in the English seaside town of Southwold, which is about as dire a punishment as exists in British public life.

Other politicians have felt the whiplash of public anger as they lounge on chaise longues while servants tend their every need. Nicolas Sarkozy felt the outrage in 2007 when he vacationed on the yacht of French billionaire Vincent Bolloré after he became president of France. But Mr. Sarkozy hadn't built a political career pretending to be friend to the average Jean or Jeanette; the lapse seemed less egregious than it does for politicians who profess to speak for the downtrodden, or even the middle-trodden.

This brings us back to the supremely questionable decision of Mr. Trudeau to take a family vacation on a private island owned by a billionaire, whose charitable foundation had business with the government. We can detour for a moment to the fact that the Conservatives are not on solid footing to criticize this lapse, as their former interim leader Rona Ambrose could also be found earlier this year vacationing on the yacht of energy tycoon Murray Edwards. Really, if you ever discounted a career in federal politics because it meant spending the winter in Ottawa, now is the time to reconsider those career ambitions.

Bahamas, billionaire, private island, private helicopter: These are not words that you'll find in the Liberals' fundraising materials alongside "struggling," "hard-working" and "middle-class." We're talking Champagne wishes and caviar dreams not available to your average voter in Nanaimo. Hell, for most of us a vacation in Niagara Falls is looking pretty sweet these days.

You would think that left-leaning politicians would realize this. Voters do not like to think of the world as one giant plutocrats' playdate, much as we suspect it is. Or I should say, we do not like to be reminded of it, though the reminder is instructive. Perhaps the wealthy and powerful can't help it; they just gravitate toward each other like so many ruby-encrusted magnets, and the force of attraction is particularly strong when the wind across the Rideau Canal turns bitter.

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I find myself fascinated by rich peoples' vacation traditions, as if studying them will somehow provide the key to why the universe tilts so that all the coins fall into a few pockets. Why was Richard Branson helping Barack Obama learn to kitesurf in the British Virgin Islands earlier this year? Are there no other non-billionaire kitesurfing instructors on the planet? How is it possible that, for years, Bill and Hillary Clinton spent Christmas with the Kissingers at the Dominican Republic villa of fashion designer Oscar de la Renta, where, according to The New York Times, "The family dogs had the run of the compound, and Mr. de la Renta often sang spontaneously after dinner." Did the Clintons and the Kissingers also have to sing for their supper? Did they bring wine?

Does anyone else feel sometimes that this is all an elaborate joke being played while the rest of us sit slack-jawed in front of National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation?

Except it's not actually all that funny, because the joke's on us. I doubt the Liberals will find it funny, either, as the odour of this scandal follows them into 2018.

As for the rest of you, brought to the bosom of your non-billionaire families by public transit rather than private helicopter, have a very happy holiday. May there be fireworks to spell out your name. Or at least sparklers.

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