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MPs probing PM's Jamaican holiday vote to examine rules on MPs and personal gifts

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at a housing announcement in Guelph, Ontario on Friday, January 12, 2024. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at a housing announcement in Guelph, Ontario on Friday, January 12, 2024. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press - image credit)

MPs on Parliament's ethics committee examining Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Christmas holiday in Jamaica have voted to take a closer look at the rules that govern gifts and travel that members of Parliament are allowed to accept.

Committee members voted to call interim Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Konrad von Finckenstein to testify. While the motion refers to the rules regarding gifts, vacations and travel, it doesn't prevent MPs from grilling the ethics commissioner on Trudeau's trip to Jamaica and whether his office intends to investigate it.

The committee rejected a bid by Conservative MP Michael Barrett to call on the government to produce documents about the trip. Barrett argued the documents would shed light on contradictory answers provided by the Prime Minister's Office about the arrangements for the trip. His proposal was rejected by Liberal, Bloc Québécois and NDP MPs on the committee.

The call for the committee to hear from the interim ethics commissioner comes after Trudeau and his family vacationed in Jamaica for the second Christmas holiday in a row.

News reports indicated that he was staying with family friend and businessman Peter Green at the luxurious Prospect Estate resort. Market rates for that resort indicate the stay could be worth as much as $84,000.

Speaking to reporters in Saint John, N.B. earlier Wednesday, Trudeau said that like other Canadian families, his family stayed with friends over the holidays. He said that all of the ethics rules were followed.

Trudeau's overseas vacations have at times been controversial. A trip to visit the Aga Khan on a private island in 2016 resulted in a finding by former ethics commissioner Mary Dawson that he had violated ethics rules that prohibit ministers from accepting gifts or advantages.

While Trudeau argued that the trip didn't contravene the rules because the Aga Khan was a family friend, Dawson concluded that Trudeau and the Aga Khan had little contact for decades before he was elected Liberal Party leader.

Conservative MPs on the committee called for today's meeting to discuss whether the committee should hold hearings into Trudeau's trip to Jamaica.

Conservative MP Michael Barrett speaks to reporters as he arrives for a meeting of the standing committee on access to information, privacy and ethics to discuss a request to undertake a study of the prime minister's vacation to Jamaica on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024.
Conservative MP Michael Barrett speaks to reporters as he arrives for a meeting of the standing committee on access to information, privacy and ethics to discuss a request to undertake a study of the prime minister's vacation to Jamaica on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024.

Conservative MP Michael Barrett speaks to reporters as he arrives for a meeting of the standing committee on access to information, privacy and ethics to discuss a request to undertake a study of the prime minister's vacation to Jamaica on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Barrett pointed out that Trudeau's trip to a luxury resort came as many Canadians are struggling with high prices and tight budgets. The estimated $84,000 value of the prime minister's stay in Jamaica for a few days is higher than the median Canadian income of $70,000, he said.

Barrett said the committee should also get to the bottom of the contradictory accounts that emerged from the Prime Minister's Office over the course of the trip. Initially, the PMO said Trudeau would be paying for his family's accommodations.

Days later, the PMO said he was not paying for his stay. In a third answer to the question, the PMO said Trudeau stayed with friends at their place, echoing what Trudeau told reporters Wednesday.

"The question is not that the prime minister went somewhere, he accepted an $84,000 gift," Barrett said, referring to Trudeau's remarks. "He didn't sleep on a couch at Uncle Buck's place."

MP says Trudeau has misled Canadians on his travel

Fellow Conservative MP Larry Brock said the prime minister and his office have misled Canadians about his travel in the past, citing the time they said he would be spending Canada's first Truth and Reconciliation Day in meetings when in fact he flew to Tofino, B.C. to surf.

Liberal MP Mona Fortier proposed that the motion be expanded to have the ethics commissioner go over all of the rules that govern the travel and gifts that MPs can accept. She pointed out that a Conservative MP received a trip sponsored by a Hungarian think tank — a reference to a trip by John Williamson to the U.K. sponsored by the Danube Institute.

NDP MP Daniel Blaikie supported expanding the motion, saying he wants to know if the current rules are adequate and whether Trudeau broke those rules by accepting the stay in Jamaica. Bloc Québécois MP René Villemure pointed out that the ethics law was adopted in 2006 and might need to be updated.

"What was habitual at a certain time no longer is today," Villemure told the committee.

While the Conservatives supported the motion to call for the government to hand over documents related to the trip, some opposition MPs said it was premature, while others expressed concerns about correspondence between individual MPs and the ethics commissioner being made public.

Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch said a number of documents related to the trip can be made public.

"The federal ethics law only requires the commissioner's advice to the prime minister or other office holders to be kept confidential, so the commissioner and the PM are allowed to disclose, and should immediately disclose, the records of the information the PM provided about his family's Jamaica trip, the date the information was given, and whether the information was changed at a later date," Conacher said.

"If the commissioner and the PM don't disclose these records, Canadians can justifiably conclude that it's a cover-up."

The committee is expected to call the ethics commissioner to testify shortly after Parliament resumes sitting on Jan. 29.