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Opinion Dawson’s ruling on Trudeau’s vacation fails in the court of common sense

Andrew Cohen is a journalist, professor and author of Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History.

Is the Aga Khan a friend of Justin Trudeau? Does a family relationship of a generation make His Highness "a friend" of the Prime Minister, which makes Mr. Trudeau's private visits to his tropical island legitimate under conflict-of-interest rules?

If not, should we infer that Mr. Trudeau is a patsy, naïve and pliable, and the Aga Khan is a petitioner, grubby and mendacious?

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These were the questions – and the landmines – before Mary Dawson, Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner. She spent almost a year interviewing principals, weighing evidence and contemplating, with Talmudic precision, the nature of the friendship between this spiritual leader and this political leader.

Her conclusion: There was no friendship and Mr. Trudeau broke the rules. A different conclusion: There was a friendship and this is an exercise in earnestness – and absurdity.

Ms. Dawson argues that Mr. Trudeau violated conflict-of-interest rules when he accepted two free holidays with his family in the Bahamas. She found that he was not exempt from the rule prohibiting public officials from "accepting gifts that might reasonably be seen to have been given to influence them in the exercise of an official power, duty or function."

Curiously, though, a public office holder or his family may accept a gift if it is "given by a relative or friend." Mr. Trudeau argued that the visits were "incidental to a lifelong personal relationship," and he did not view them as gifts of influence.

Ms. Dawson finds there was a family relationship under Pierre Trudeau, ending with his funeral in 2000, where His Highness was a pallbearer. There was no contact between them otherwise.

Things warmed when the younger Mr. Trudeau became leader of the Liberal Party. The Aga Khan called it a personal relationship, which evolved when Mr. Trudeau "matured and had a family." Mr. Trudeau said he had conversations with the Aga Khan "as equals, on how to serve a community" and that he could develop "a friendship … that would not be dependent on his family's relationship."

Ms. Dawson concludes, after forensic analysis, that the relationship arose out of his political stature. "I cannot conclude that 'the personal friendship' described by Mr. Trudeau and the Aga Khan fits within the concept of friend" contemplated in the rules, she says – whatever that means.

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Ms. Dawson says that in visiting the island, Mr. Trudeau was "in a position to advance some of the matters of interest to the Aga Khan, whether he did so or not." Gifts, then, could "reasonably" be seen to have been given to influence Mr. Trudeau.

So there it is. More lawyer than psychologist, Ms. Dawson has interpreted this odd rule strictly. The problem is what passes muster in a court of law fails in the court of common sense.

The commissioner is there to make a call and she did. Yet in understanding human nature, Ms. Dawson is no Solomon.

Really, does it matter if Mr. Trudeau and Aga Khan had a friendship, forged over a generation? Do we really think Mr. Trudeau wanted a free vacation so much that he would knowingly compromise himself? Or that the Aga Khan wanted something so much that he would soil his reputation?

The case against Mr. Trudeau would be stronger if this were not the Aga Khan. Yes, his charitable foundation receives money from the federal government to improve life in the developing world. But he also gives away money in Canada, from the Global Centre of Pluralism in Ottawa to the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto. (A personal disclaimer: My wife worked for his foundation in Canada more than a decade ago.)

The Aga Khan is not a bagman or a blackguard; he is one of the most respected figures in the world. No wonder His Highness is an honorary Companion of the Order of Canada. He is also an honorary citizen of Canada who was invited to address Parliament – both rare honours conferred by Stephen Harper's Conservatives.

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That he would seek gain is preposterous. It indicts him and demeans him, by innuendo and inference.

Certainly Mr. Trudeau (who suffers no sanctions with this ruling) mishandled this matter. He should have announced the visit before he went, explained why he was going and celebrated the warm relationship between the Aga Khan and Canada. He should have paid for his holiday, outside official business. He should have known, in this country, how it would all look.

But fundamentally, the commissioner has misread human nature. There was a serious ethical lapse here only if you believe that all politicians are crooks and spiritual leaders are frauds. And that our political climate is so toxic and devoid of substance that we can spend a year discussing official behaviour more cavalier than sinister.

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