Leong: Politicians seem entitled to lap up generous gifts from friends

You’d think people like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Premier Danielle Smith would know how perception can be more powerful than reality — and you’d be wrong.

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When is a gift just a gift?

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In the political realm, this is hard to know.

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That’s why there are rules for elected officials when they do accept a present — assuming they can receive it at all — to promote transparency and dispel the notion of a quid pro quo or some kind of attempt at exerting influence.

Of course, even when everything is theoretically above board by the letter of the law, the appearance of malfeasance can still linger.

Just ask Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

He holds the highest political office in the land and it should come as no surprise to anyone all his actions are heavily scrutinized — including travel.

It was recently reported the Trudeau family recently spent the Christmas period vacationing at what was described as a luxury ocean resort in Jamaica.

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The private compound where they stayed would ordinarily cost $9,300/night but their visit was covered by longtime family friends, reported the National Post, our sister publication.

The cost is for the stay itself and excludes the price tag for the security and staff assigned to accompany the prime minister, as is routine.

The trip was given a green light by the federal ethics commissioner, who was consulted about the vacation, a spokesman for the prime minister’s office said, according to the Post.

“There is an exception … that allows a public officer holder to accept gifts or other advantages given by a relative or friend and any such gifts do not require public disclosure,” the spokesman said.

This would be less of a big deal if there hadn’t been controversy surrounding Trudeau’s previous sojourns.

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A stay at the same compound last Christmas was never disclosed until CBC reported it in the spring.

The family friend has donated to the Trudeau Foundation, which the prime minister hasn’t been involved in since before he became Liberal leader.

And in 2017, the PM got a finger wag from the ethics commissioner of the time for not disclosing a trip to the Aga Khan’s private island in The Bahamas during Christmas in 2016.

The Aga Khan had received funding from the federal government.

The close family friend card was played alongside other legal arguments but the ethics czar was having none of it.

Trudeau would eventually apologize for this “mistake.”

Regardless of whether the rules were followed, accepting pricey vacations is a terrible look, from the trips themselves to questions about what might have been happening behind the scenes.

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Perception can be more powerful than reality — and someone like Trudeau should know this and act accordingly.

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Ethical trouble with gifts not just a federal problem

You’d think someone like Premier Danielle Smith would know, too, but alas, Alberta’s UCP government seems to have a taste for presents as well.

Just before Christmas, MLAs approved a bill that gives cabinet the power to unilaterally decide the maximum allowable value of gifts elected officials can accept. It also allows the premier’s chief of staff to approve gifts surpassing legislated limits.

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The taxpaying public would be none the wiser.

This follows a complaint from Smith about the previous gift limit, which hadn’t been adjusted for inflation, making it difficult for elected officials to accept invitations to attend such events as NHL games. (Cue the world’s smallest violin.)

Hobnobbing and networking are important in politics, but so is transparency. It would have been better to have elected officials pay out-of-pocket to attend such events but be able to have the costs reimbursed by the government up to a set maximum.

They’d be able to avoid the ethical problems with accepting gifts while still being able to talk business, without hiding from Albertans who they’ve hung out with.

It doesn’t take much for a gift to lead into grift, and for grift to turn into graft.

If politicians were smart, they’d do everything in their power to steer clear of freebies and the troubles that go with them.

I can hear your snide remarks already.


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