The federal ethics watchdog says his office verified that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had a legitimate friendship with the person who gifted him a Jamaican vacation, making the free resort stay acceptable.
In blunt testimony to the House of Commons ethics committee Tuesday, Interim Ethics Commissioner Konrad von Finckenstein told members of Parliament that he does not plan to investigate the holiday and considers the matter closed.
“This is a true friend, who has no relations with the government of Canada,” Mr. von Finckenstein told the committee.
“What we have here is clearly a generous gift but it’s between people who are friends and I don’t see why, just because they’re well off, they can’t exchange gifts.”
Had he believed that the gift was “really exceptional,” the commissioner said he could choose to launch an investigation, but he said the Prime Minister’s free vacation didn’t rise to the level of exceptional.
Throughout his testimony, Mr. von Finckenstein bristled at Conservative and Liberal attempts to get him to critique behaviours of MPs for issues that he repeatedly noted were explicitly permitted under the rules governing elected officials. The Commissioner also repeatedly reminded the committee members that they control the law, which he enforces, and therefore they are the ones who can change it if they believe the act should be strengthened.
The ethics committee made no move Tuesday to change the rules around gifts that public office holders can accept but the MPs did pass an NDP motion calling for an explicit ban of sponsored travel – reversing its position from less than a year ago that argued against restrictions. Such travel is not the same as gifts but rather is paid for by advocacy groups.
The Conservative Party led the calls of a committee review of Mr. Trudeau’s vacation and on Tuesday MP Michael Barrett said the Prime Minister’s gifted trip was unreasonable and unacceptable but avoided saying whether his party would tighten the ethics rules that allow it. The Bloc Québécois and NDP both said the rules should be strengthened.
The National Post reported that Mr. Trudeau and his family vacationed in a luxury $9,300-a-night villa at the Prospect Estate and Villas resort, owned by Trudeau family friend Peter Green. It said in total it would have cost approximately $84,000 for the nine-day stay had the family paid for it themselves. The Globe and Mail has not independently verified the report.
The Conflict of Interest Act does not set a limit on the size of a gift a public office holder can accept from a friend. However, the commissioner told the committee that had the gift risen to the lavish level of something like a Ferrari or $1-million, he could choose to launch an investigation, even if it is from a friend.
But he later clarified that he was not setting a bar for when he would investigate a gift. Instead he said he would look at the circumstances of the gift, its value, and the nature of the friendship.
The controversy over Mr. Trudeau’s family vacation, which took place from Dec. 26 to Jan. 4, was sparked after the Prime Minister’s Office repeatedly changed details regarding the trip, including who paid for it, but would not release details of where he stayed. The changing facts were a key reason why Conservatives said the vacation warranted a review from the House ethics committee and the commissioner.
Mr. Barrett raised the multiple corrections from the Prime Minister’s Office with the commissioner, but Mr. von Finckenstein dismissed it as “totally irrelevant” to the Conflict of Interest Act because under the law, the vacation would have been permitted whether Mr. Trudeau paid for it or Mr. Green paid for it.
Mr. von Finckenstein said his office gave advice to the Prime Minister’s Office on the trip and he described his advice as the equivalent of a ruling because “public office holders have always accepted our advice.”
Mr. Trudeau has repeatedly defended his decision to accept the gift from a family friend, saying last week: “As many Canadians did, I stayed with friends over the holidays.”
Conservatives have decried the comment as being out of touch, given that most Canadians do not receive such generous gifts.
The commissioner underscored Mr. Trudeau’s lengthy history with Mr. Green in his committee testimony, noting they have been family friends for more than 50 years and the Prime Minister has stayed on the Jamaican property since he was a child.
When his father, Pierre Trudeau, was prime minister, he repeatedly visited the same property, including in 1978, when he brought his sons with him. The 1978 vacation landed the then-prime minister in controversy for travelling abroad while his government urged Canadians to vacation domestically to offset a tourism deficit and the sliding value of the dollar.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has frequently criticized the gifted trip. On Tuesday his office said Mr. Poilievre also flew south over the holidays, but in his case spokesperson Sebastian Skamski said the leader and his family paid for the entirety of their trip, including flights and an AirBnB in the Dominican Republic.
With a report from Campbell Clark