Given the prime min­is­ter’s ap­par­ently acute in­abil­ity to spot them on his own be­half, per­haps a dedicated oculist to see when he’s putting his foot in it isn’t as fan­ci­ful an idea as many seem to be­lieve it is.


National Post (National Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - — REX MURPHY,

Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau should hire a di­rec­tor of ethics and over­sight to vet po­ten­tial con­flicts of in­ter­est, according to poll­sters Greg Lyle and Frank Graves, who were quoted in the Hill Times.

I can­not see why not. After all, there must be a few dol­lars still float­ing around now that the Kiel­burger broth­ers will not be get­ting their multi-mil­lion dol­lar com­mis­sion and all the ducats that were to be sprin­kled out to ea­ger young (paid) vol­un­teers now float free for other pur­poses. There should at least be enough to sup­ply a salary for a per­son­al­ized ethics min­der and the staff for what will be — if past be­hav­iours are anything to go by — a de­mand­ing, and pos­si­bly even full time, po­si­tion.

It hear­kens to the story, apoc­ryphal or not, from the an­cient days of the Ro­man Em­pire, when the ruler of what was then “all the world” had even in his pro­ces­sions of tri­umph one whis­per­ing in his ear: “Re­mem­ber, thou too art mor­tal.” (They were fond of stilted lo­cu­tions in those days. As am I in these.)

Now, I do not think a Cana­dian prime min­is­ter needs some pin­striped spoil­sport run­ning around after him day after day whis­per­ing, “Re­mem­ber, too, that thou art sub­ject to the polls.” That would be undig­ni­fied. But an oc­ca­sional cau­tion­ary, “Be­ware the Ides of Kiel­burger,” wouldn’t be a com­plete waste of lip move­ment.

Yet given the prime min­is­ter’s ap­par­ently acute in­abil­ity to spot them on his own be­half, per­haps a dedicated oculist to see when he’s putting his foot in it, at least when it comes to po­ten­tial con­flicts of in­ter­est, isn’t as fan­ci­ful an idea as many seem to be­lieve it is.

Think of such an ap­point­ment as a kind of per­son­al­ized hu­man trip­wire, a sort of ethics scout sent ahead to probe un­fa­mil­iar (or too fa­mil­iar) “good cause” ter­rain. Some­one who can give the prime min­is­ter a sense of the ruts and bumps ahead. It’s a gem of an idea.

A re­ally on-the-ball ad­viser could offer him some tips of the trade, such as: steer clear of bil­lion­aires who buy their own is­lands; and be wary of those who run very fancy internatio­nal char­i­ties and also have gi­ant real es­tate hold­ings. This is, for the most part, be­gin­ners stuff, but our prime min­is­ter is very much an in­no­cent in these mat­ters.

(As a side note, could there not be a sub-di­rec­tor of ethics and over­sight for Fi­nance Min­is­ter Bill Morneau? I do not see a re­quire­ment for full-time em­ploy­ment here, as Morneau’s few lapses are less a mat­ter of a lack of fore­sight, and certainly not inat­ten­tion, as mere for­get­ful­ness — a va­ca­tion bill here, a villa there. As the old Bay Street say­ing goes: the larger the in­ven­tory, the eas­ier to for­get a bit.)

But how, I hear you col­lec­tively mum­mer, would this work in real terms? Would a dedicated di­rec­tor of ethics and over­sight have spared our prime min­is­ter the te­dious em­bar­rass­ments and back­track­ing over this dread­ful WE af­fair?

I sug­gest it might. Such a di­rec­tor might have sug­gested to Trudeau, per­haps on a flight to Tofino, B.C., that rather too many of the prime min­is­ter’s ac­tual and immediate fam­ily (mother, wife, brother — ev­ery­one ex­cept the but­ler and the fam­ily pet) were, in one way or the other, paid or oth­er­wise, wound too tight with the Kiel­burger em­pire.

He could con­tinue: “Mr. Trudeau, these are not your second cousins. Second cousins we could deal with. And on top of it all, apart from Craig and Marc Kiel­burger, you’re their main draw. Im­age-wise, we’ve got to lower the blinds on this one. Word to the wise: no sole-source grants to WE Char­ity, as it’ll be a downer for us Lib­er­als.”

No more would need to have been said. A thought­ful “hmm” from a now-alerted prime min­is­ter would be the sig­nal that the hint had been re­ceived. A fur­ther whis­per into the skilled ear of his chief communicat­ions ad­viser and the Kiel­burger broth­ers would be rel­e­gated to a faded name on the Rolodex of “peo­ple we used to know.”

A re­ally good di­rec­tor of ethics and over­sight would have added, “And while you’re at it, have a chat with Morneau.” But per­fec­tion is al­ways more a goal than a re­al­ity.

The one ques­tion is where this would leave the ethics com­mis­sioner. The an­swer comes down to this nearly in­tractable ques­tion: is it pos­si­ble to have too many ethics com­mis­sion­ers when a Lib­eral gov­ern­ment is in power?

That’s much too deep for this colum­nist. I think this is why we have such em­i­nent phi­los­o­phy de­part­ments in all our ma­jor uni­ver­si­ties: to wres­tle with ques­tions of such end­less sub­tlety and depth.


A per­sonal ethics ad­viser for Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau could be a full-time job, says Rex Murphy.

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