Ethics vs. eth­i­cal rules

Ditch the rule book. We know why politi­cians should es­chew va­ca­tions with bil­lion­aires

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - LATHAM HUNTER Latham Hunter is a writer and pro­fes­sor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions and cul­tural stud­ies; her work has been pub­lished in jour­nals, an­tholo­gies and print news for over 20 years. She blogs at The Kids’ Book Cu­ra­tor.

For a minute there I was wor­ried that the whole politi­cian-on-bil­lion­aire-va­ca­tion thing was blow­ing over with­out any real con­se­quence (much like elec­toral re­form), so imag­ine how happy I was to learn that MP Rona Am­brose, leader of the op­po­si­tion — the woman in charge of sham­ing Trudeau for his bil­lion­aire va­ca­tion — has ALSO been on a bil­lion­aire va­ca­tion! Not on a pri­vate Ba­hamian is­land, but on a Caribbean yacht! You say potato, I say poh-tah-toe!

When Trudeau’s va­ca­tion on the Aga Khan’s is­land came to light, the press be­gan its quest for the clar­i­fi­ca­tion of banal de­tail. How much money does the fed­eral gov­ern­ment give to Khan’s foun­da­tion ev­ery year? Why were a Lib­eral party pres­i­dent and a Lib­eral MP there, too? If you get to a pri­vate is­land by per­sonal he­li­copter, how do you cal­cu­late what that ride would cost if it was a com­mer­cial trip? Why was the ethics com­mis­sioner not con­sulted about the pos­si­ble con­flicts of in­ter­est and eth­i­cal vi­o­la­tions prior to the trip? How many times has Trudeau been to this is­land?!

And now we seem to be en­gaged in the same quest, this time with Am­brose: Did she pay for a por­tion of her char­ter flight? How long had she been on va­ca­tion when she asked the ethics com­mis­sioner about the pro­pri­ety of her va­ca­tion? Etc.

Yes, de­tails are im­por­tant as they get us closer to an ob­jec­tive truth, but there’s a dan­ger in in­ter­pret­ing de­tails as the most salient el­e­ments of an is­sue. Though im­por­tant, their cler­i­cal ba­nal­ity can crowd out the hu­man­ity of our so­cial con­science. In other words: can we fo­cus in­stead on ask­ing how our fed­eral rep­re­sen­ta­tives have the nerve to swan around in a bil­lion­aire’s world while one in seven of their cit­i­zens live in poverty?

Per­haps this seems quaint — naïve, even — but I’d ar­gue that now is ex­actly the time to be ques­tion­ing not what is ac­cept­able as per a gov­ern­ment rule book, but what is ac­cept­able on a moral level. In other words: not what’s per­mis­si­ble, but what’s right.

The United States has been em­broiled in this de­bate writ large: is it per­mis­si­ble by the letter of the law to ap­point an oil baron as Sec­re­tary of State, par­tic­u­larly when Rus­sian hack­ing has played a role in the elec­tion of the new pres­i­dent? Do we have any proof that it would be a di­rect vi­o­la­tion of gov­ern­men­tal pol­icy to award the leadership of the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency to an op­po­nent of en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion? Is it against any rules, per se, to al­low the elec­tion of a pres­i­dent who has bragged about sex­u­ally as­sault­ing women? Is it a con­flict of in­ter­est to ap­point the coun­try’s “Fore­clo­sure King” as the trea­sury sec­re­tary? Let’s check the rule book ... No, there’s noth­ing specif­i­cally writ­ten down here about any of that! Okey dokey, then! Mean­while, the ranks of rich white men in charge of the pub­lic do­main grow and grow. My heart sank to learn that Kevin O’Leary, a crass busi­ness­man with an es­ti­mated worth of sev­eral hun­dred mil­lion, is hop­ing to ride this trend to the leadership of the Con­ser­va­tive party. It’s a feu­dal­ism re­boot — in­stead of the landown­ers be­ing in charge of ev­ery­thing, it’s the mon­ey­own­ers. Feu­dal­ism 2.0, if you like.

When de­bate about who might be break­ing which eth­i­cal rule dom­i­nates the pub­lic dis­course, few are forced to re­ally grap­ple with the moral­ity, rather than the ba­nal­ity, of our gov­ern­ment, be­cause the lat­ter dis­tracts from the for­mer. It’s about the eth­i­cal rules rather than the ethics. It is morally wrong for feds to take bil­lion­aire va­cays while so many peo­ple in their coun­try — in their care — don’t have enough to eat, and still more live pay­cheque to pay­cheque. Don’t we have the right to ex­pect our politi­cians to ex­press sol­i­dar­ity with cit­i­zens in this kind of jeop­ardy? Or at the very least have a smaller-scale va­ca­tion in a Cana­dian des­ti­na­tion, to help out the 1.6 mil­lion who work in the stag­nant Cana­dian tourism in­dus­try?

This is dif­fi­cult jour­nal­ism, though — it goes far be­yond the re­port­ing of facts (which has the patina of in­ves­tiga­tive rigour) and risks ac­cu­sa­tions of un­fash­ion­able soap­box mor­al­iz­ing. But we need to strip ev­ery­thing down to the hu­man el­e­ment and rec­og­nize that when our gov­ern­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tives are ad­mit­ted to the ranks of the elite, it cor­rupts the en­tire no­tion of democ­racy as a func­tion of so­cial equal­ity, es­pe­cially at a time when we know that in­come in­equal­ity — the vast wealth held in the hands of so few elite — is a pri­mary driver of so­cial in­equal­ity. We don’t need of­fi­cial gov­ern­ment in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the sanc­tioned pro­pri­ety of politi­cians’ bil­lion­aire va­ca­tions, be­cause we know in our guts that they’re wrong. In­stead, we need a pub­lic em­bold­en­ing about what kind of sol­i­dar­ity we have a right to ex­pect from our elected of­fi­cials. If we let it all blow over, then we’re more like Trump’s Amer­ica than I ever thought pos­si­ble.


When Justin Trudeau’s va­ca­tion on the Aga Khan’s is­land came to light, the press (and Rona Am­brose) be­gan a quest for the clar­i­fi­ca­tion of banal de­tail. Then, we found out Am­brose had her own bil­lion­aire’s hol­i­day ...

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