OTTAWA — The prime minister doesn’t have business meetings. He has relationship sessions.
That’s the view Justin Trudeau outlined to the ethics commissioner during her probe of Trudeau’s family vacations to the Aga Khan’s private island, which ended with Mary Dawson finding the prime minister violated four parts of the conflict of interest act.
But her report also offers a glimpse into how Trudeau views the job as prime minister and how that shapes the inner workings of his government.
Some prime ministers view themselves as a CEO who set ideas and are the face of the government, leaving the heavy lifting to their ministers or senior civil servants. Others consider themselves the CEO types who are more involved in the day-to-day operations.
Experts say Dawson’s report points to the former model for Trudeau.
When Dawson asked Trudeau about meetings where there was discussion with the Aga Khan about a $15-million grant to the billionaire philanthropist’s endowment fund of the Global Centre for Pluralism, the prime minister explained his lack of concern about being in the room.
Dawson described how Trudeau sees meetings as a way “to further develop a relationship between the individual and Canada” and his role in those meetings ”as ceremonial in nature.”
“The meetings he (Trudeau) attends as Prime Minister are not business meetings,” Dawson wrote, recounting Trudeau’s words.
“Rather, they are high-level meetings centred on relationship building and ensuring that all parties are moving forward together. Specific issues or details are worked out before, subsequently or independently of any meeting he attends.”
While the role of prime minister is often as facilitator, the prime minister is always on government business, said Alex Marland, a professor of political science at Memorial University in St. John’s, N.L.
“The prime minister is always operating in a business environment the moment that person becomes prime minister. It is totally ridiculous to me that you could somehow say no, I’m not doing this as prime minister.”
Dawson did determine the prime minister shouldn’t have been at the meetings.
Marland said that a hands-off prime minister allows some ministers to become more powerful than others, and also gives more power to political staffers in the Prime Minister’s Office. The power doesn’t vanish, Marland said, it just diffuses to different places, including unelected and largely unaccountable staffers.
He said the Liberals’ move to make the Senate more independent-minded could be the best counterbalance to this new power base.
The power has also diffused to the senior civil servants checking and co-ordinating policy across departments as part of the Liberals’ “deliverology” agenda, said Kathy Brock, a professor in the school of policy studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.
That diffusion weakens the lines of accountability because no one person or minister can be held responsible for a policy or program, she said.
This can lead a prime minister to become more detached from how policies are being written and implemented, especially one who is as focused on managing their public image as the Liberals are with Trudeau, Brock said.
“A lot of government work is tough slogging. It’s getting down into the details and ensuring things work out and that’s where he could run into problems as we saw with the China trip,” she said, referring to Trudeau’s recent visit to the country where an expected launch of free trade talks failed to materialize.
Those kind of missteps are the consequence of being more focused on image politics and leaving the details to others, Brock said: “When people start to see that that’s your game, then they take you less seriously, or play to their advantage.”
Dawson’s concern was the Aga Khan’s gifts could be seen as could reasonably be seen as a gift designed to influence the prime minister and give the religious leader an unfair advantage.
Trudeau maintains the Aga Khan is a close family friend, which would have exempted any gifts from conflict of interest rules. Dawson disagreed, noting phone conversations between the two were organized and done through “official channels.”
Dawson was curious: Do all the prime minister’s friends go through his officials for a friendly chat?
“Mr. Trudeau said that many of his close friends reach him directly. He said that other friends, who have assistants, will reach him through official channels,” Dawson wrote.