There is a line in the Ethics Commissioner's report on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's multiple violations of the Conflict of Interest Act that would gobsmack any first-year student of Canadian parliamentary democracy.
"Mr. Trudeau views his involvement with the Aga Khan and his Canadian institutions as ceremonial in nature, similar to the interactions he would have with any global leader or any distinguished global citizen," Mary Dawson writes in her 66-page decision on the Prime Minister's vacations on the Aga Khan's private island, weightily titled The Trudeau Report.
While not exactly the Pentagon Papers, Ms. Dawson's report exposes a major gap between the public image of a modern prime minister leading Canada through a turbulent global era of renewed nationalism and protectionism, and the reality of one detached from the nitty-gritty, who apparently sweats neither the big nor small stuff and views his role as "ceremonial."
Ceremony, in the constitutional monarchy that is Canada, is the domain of the Governor-General. While the latter does have some real powers, they have rarely, if ever, been truly exercised. That ensures the Queen's representative remains above the fray. Her role really is a ceremonial one, embodying the Canadian state in all its non-partisan and apolitical glory.
A prime minister, by definition, is never above the fray. He or she is in it up to his or her neck. Nothing a prime minister does is apolitical. Yes, there are certain perfunctory duties, such as the laying of wreaths and planting of trees, that any head of government occasionally performs. But the prime minister is never a ceremonial figure, whether on Canadian soil or abroad.
After two years in power, Mr. Trudeau either still does not understand this or shaped his testimony to the Ethics Commissioner to minimize the gravity of his decision to accept free travel and accommodation from a wealthy individual who heads various charitable organizations that have "ongoing official business" with the government of Canada.
Mr. Trudeau told Ms. Dawson that he had no qualms about holding a private meeting with the Aga Khan in early 2016, after his wife and children had just spent a week on the rich philanthropist's private island and while the Aga Khan Foundation was pressing Ottawa to make good on the former Conservative government's promise to contribute funding to one of its projects.
"The meetings he attends as Prime Minister are not business meetings," Ms. Dawson writes, in summarizing Mr. Trudeau's testimony. "Rather they are high-level meetings centred on relationship building and ensuring that all parties are moving forward together. Specific issues or details are worked out before, subsequently or independently of any meeting he attends."
Ms. Dawson must have been biting her tongue here, given her conclusion that Mr. Trudeau violated the Conflict of Interest Act by "failing to recuse himself from discussions that provided an opportunity to improperly further the private interest" of the Aga Khan's organizations. Just because the PM leaves the details to others does not mean he is not accountable for them.
Mr. Trudeau's managerial style suggests a leader somewhat disengaged from the job he was elected to perform. After Stephen Harper's frigid personality, Canadians wanted likeability and empathy from their Prime Minister and Mr. Trudeau scores highly on both.
But no one could ever accuse Mr. Harper of being disengaged from his job. He inhabited it, often to excess. He was intimate with the "details" of government business, but his administration was largely a one-man show. And there was no room for opinions that did not mesh with his own.
Unlike Mr. Harper, Mr. Trudeau did not enter politics on a mission to undo decades of statist Liberal policy. He clearly prefers the "ceremonial" aspects of his job to the actual exercise of power. He has moved decisively to banish MPs and staffers who appear to have contravened his feminist values.
But he is no policy wonk, allowing PMO staffers and bureaucrats to work out the details of government decisions. He seems to view his job as one of brand-building and selling the final product.
This yields the results we have come to know. Can anyone imagine the torturous Bill Morneau affair enduring this long under Mr. Harper, Jean Chrétien or Brian Mulroney? Granted, each of these previous prime ministers had very different managerial styles. But no one can argue they did not assume the full weight of their responsibilities. It showed in their faces.
Someone needs to write Mr. Trudeau his own mandate letter.