Ethics vs. ethical rules
Ditch the rule book. We know why politicians should eschew vacations with billionaires
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 ...