John Diefenbaker waggled his finger sternly across the aisle as he instructed the Liberal government of the day in 1968: “It is a long road that has no ash cans.”
While the provenance of Dief’s metaphor is obscure, his warning was clear. You think you know what you are doing, but don’t get so full of yourself, so convinced of the rightness of your course that you do not see the obstacles littering the road ahead.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his present-day Liberals must surely understand the Chief’s message. Their 2017 has been full of ash cans.
The biggest ash can for Trudeau, like other national leaders who deal with Washington, has been Donald Trump. Everything changed the moment “The Donald” was sworn in last January.
Under Trump, the United States has gone from being a dependable partner and stout ally to a daily Whack-a-Mole game. What will he want today and what will he promise or threaten to do to get his way? Will he want the same thing tomorrow or something different? Will he want to build bridges or walls? Will he want to negotiate trade agreements or tear them up? Will he treat Canada as his best friend and partner or as an unreliable supporter and unfair competitor?
There is no way Trudeau could have anticipated the extent to which managing the Canada-United States relationship would dominate the Liberal agenda this year – the most urgent and most consuming item of government time, talent and energy, day after unpredictable day. If other issues on the government bucket list had to be given short shrift or were handled clumsily, that’s what happens when one ash can plants itself in the centre of the road.
Trudeau has only himself to blame for some of the other ash cans. Finance Minister Bill Morneau would not have been such easy prey for the opposition throughout the fall if the Prime Minister had done due diligence to make sure his ministers complied with the Conflict of Interest Act provisions regarding the disclosure of assets and the establishment of blind trusts.
He can count himself lucky that his antagonist across the aisle is Andrew Scheer. As opposition leader, Scheer is persistent but not vicious. The Diefenbaker of old would have flayed Morneau alive with the same glee that he exhibited while eviscerating some of Lester Pearson’s ministers, especially his francophone justice ministers, Guy Favreau and Lucien Cardin.
As the year ends, Trudeau finds himself in an ash can of his own making. Finally, after letting the file gather dust for 11 months, Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson let Trudeau have it with both barrels last week. She released her report into the Trudeau family’s vacation on the Aga Khan’s private island in the Bahamas last December.
“Mr. Trudeau failed to arrange his private affairs in a manner that would prevent him from being placed in a conflict of interest. Neither Mr. Trudeau nor his family should have vacationed on the Aga Khan’s private island,” she concluded.
She dismissed the Prime Minister’s argument that the Aga Khan was an old and dear family friend. As Dawson saw it, the relationship was more political than personal. Trudeau, she said, was well aware that the Aga Khan did business with the federal government (he had registered as a lobbyist). Therefore, Trudeau breached his government’s conflict rules by accepting his host’s hospitality on the island and by his use of the Aga Khan’s helicopter to get there.
For Mary Dawson, the report was a belated response to critics who contend she has not been a vigilant ethics watchdog. With her replacement taking over next month, she had nothing to lose.
Trudeau will have to eat some humble pie. But Parliament is on its long Christmas-New Year’s recess, and the Prime Minister can take comfort from the fact that he will not have to face a John Diefenbaker when it does come back.