Private island getaway could be Trudeau’s tipping point

PM announces talking tour – and not a moment too soon

by Paul Wells

Somewhere in the sullen sandstone bunker of Ottawa’s Langevin Block, somebody has finally pulled the populism alarm.

You know the one. It says IN CASE OF ENTITLEMENT, BREAK GLASS.


The glass remained unbroken when Justin Trudeau partied with Bono and Kevin Spacey at Davos a year ago.

Nobody reached for the little hammer when his top staffers, Gerald Butts and Katie Telford, posted moving expenses that could have paid to bury Trajan’s legions in Styrofoam peanuts. Everyone kept their cool when Health Minister Jane Philpott hired a Liberal donor for bespoke limo service around the Golden Horseshoe.

Even after Trudeau’s social appointments turned out to form an arrow on Google Maps pointing to the one billionaire in China who stays up at night wondering whether the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation has enough money to get by, nobody pulled the red lever.

But there comes a point. Perhaps Trudeau realized he had reached it as he was flying back from his New Year’s family vacation at the Aga Khan’s private island in the Bahamas.

That last bit took a while to tease out of the PMO, didn’t it? At first, his public agenda said only “Personal.”

Then, reporters were told he was not in Canada. Then that he had been in the Bahamas. And finally, yesterday, the travel arrangements.

Government spokesmen were quick Friday to note Trudeau’s conspicuous frugality on the way to, uh, the private island with the yacht in what the Hollywood Reporter calls the “Hamptons of the Bahamas.”

Trudeau paid the market cost of airfare to the, uh, private island with the yacht in the Hamptons of the Bahamas.

Note that the Aga Khan makes friends easily, and that Stephen Harper liked him too. But for that very reason, the Canadian government and the Aga Khan Foundation have done business together over the years: $30 million in federal money for the Foundation’s Sussex Dr. headquarters, $75 million for Foundation development projects in Africa and Asia.

Reporters were left arguing whether it’s the secrecy or the luxury that looked worse. My own rule of thumb is that there is no good sentence in politics that contains the phrase “private island with the yacht.”

But there are all kinds of good sentences that contain the phrase “ordinary Canadians,” and at last Trudeau’s office decided it was time to write a few.

So on Friday Trudeau’s office announced he is leaving on an extended tour of “coffee shops, church basements, etc.” in small-town Ontario, the Prairies and British Columbia. Conspicuously absent from that list: the four Atlantic provinces, which returned a Liberal in every riding at the last election. Clearly the goal is not tobask in adulation, but to nip small problems before they get big.

Somewhere between the first reports of the tour and the end of the day, the PMO also announced Trudeau won’t be attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, where he made such a splash a year ago. He simply has so many coffee shops to hit that he can no longer squeeze the Alps into his itinerary, reporters were told.

This is, it seems to me, the more poignant news. Davos is not actually a disco lounge where billionaires go to douse one another with champagne. Or at least not only that. It’s a handy place to meet CEOs and world leaders at the level of minister or higher, and to pitch Canada as an investment destination. Last year Trudeau met General Motors CEO Mary Barra, Thomson Reuters CEO Jim Smith and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella there. Later, all three companies announced large investments in Canada.

We are told some number of Liberal cabinet ministers will make their way to Davos without the boss, and it’s safe to assume he’ll go back one day. Even Stephen Harper sometimes went to Davos.

But there is sometimes the odour of a plutocracy around the Trudeau clique, and as his trade minister Chrystia Freeland wrote in her book Plutocrats, that can be a problem.

The prime minister, who lived at 24 Sussex Dr. until he was 14, then moved to his father’s astonishing art deco mansion on Pine Ave. in Montreal, will never have an easy time shaking that image.

He certainly won’t if he makes no effort.

In the meantime, he will meet some real Canadians, and hear what they have to say. Perhaps some of it will be sharp-tongued. He’ll listen, and adjust. At the next election, the Conservatives and NDP will certainly say he has done nothing for working Canadians. Trudeau’s test will be whether working Canadians say, “Well, that’s baloney.” If that reaction isn’t automatic, he’ll have trouble.

Paul Wells is a national affairs writer. His column appears Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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