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Of politicians, vacations, and helicopters

By Tim Powers      

The PM need have only asked ex-Conservative minister Peter MacKay about the perils of a convenient helicopter.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of Ismaili Muslims, on Parliament Hill in May. Photograph courtesy of the PMO
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OTTAWA—Politicians, vacations, and helicopters do not make a comfortable threesome.

Now get your mind out of the gutter if somehow you ventured there.

Justin Trudeau’s vacation to the Aga Khan’s private island in the Bahamas is causing the prime minister and his government lots of grief. Most of it seems to be of their own making, based on the planning of the trip and the mangled communications of it. The prime minister probably is wishing he was like the rest of us poor sops whose Christmas travel troubles usually involve lost luggage, never-ending delayed flights and the ever-reliable passenger announcement: “We thank you for your patience.” As if there was some option. But the prime minister does have options most of us don’t.

Let me join the chorus who argue that politicians rightly deserve vacations and they should be able to spend time with their friends regardless of the wealth or poverty of the acquaintance. They also shouldn’t be mandated to solely stay in Canada. If you are a Canadian politician sometimes the only time you do truly get away is when you get out of the country. Outside of Canada—shock of shocks—you don’t hear many people talking about our domestic affairs.

But if you are a prime minister or a serving minister of the Crown and some part of your vacation involves a helicopter ride, the red flags should go up. Canadians would rather see you go all old-school voyageur in the way you get around. Think of that old National Film Board vignette with the classic “dum da da dum da da dum dum da” soundtrack and you’ll be on the right track.

The prime minister need have only asked former Conservative minister Peter MacKay about the perils of a convenient helicopter. MacKay was vacationing at a private fishing lodge outside Gander, N.L. a few years ago. He was the defence minister at the time. He had to return to work from the vacation and a defence department helicopter came to pick him up in the woods. It was a search and rescue helicopter that was deployed to get MacKay for a short ride back to Gander.

At that time opposition MPs, including the Liberals, lambasted MacKay and Stephen Harper’s government not just for the use of the helicopter but the way they communicated. Sound familiar?

In a case of you reap what you sow, Trudeau is under fire for among other things using the Aga Khan’s private helicopter to fly to the religious leader’s island. Helicopter flight is apparently the normal route of travel there. There are restrictions on prime ministers flying on private helicopters. Someone in the government perhaps overlooked that or hoped inquiring minds would. Trudeau is now getting MacKay-level grief, which has been exacerbated by the clumsy way information about the trip has dripped out.

In some ways Trudeau is probably in a no-win situation here. Imagine the storm cloud if a government helicopter or helicopters had been co-opted to get him to the private island? Next time he could bring that canoe he is so fond of paddling in photo-ops; it would have saved him here.

Personally, I can’t wait to hear the potential future leader of the Conservatives, Mr. Money Bags himself, Kevin O’Leary, weigh in on this one. No doubt a blistering critique of the Aga Khan’s aerospace choices and some reference to surfing will be part of it. That will be some outsider perspective.

The wonderful thing about Canada is we can spend days and weeks chasing our tails around on what is appropriate or isn’t for our vacationing politicians. However, they themselves only need look in the mirror to ascribe blame for this cycle. Nothing so good like calling out the other guy until you actually become the other guy.

Tim Powers is vice-chairman of Summa Strategies and managing director of Abacus Data. He is a former adviser to Conservative political leaders.

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