This past Canada Day, Justin Trudeau boarded the aging prime ministerial jet to embark on an ambitious one-day, cross-country, nation-celebrating jaunt.
As part of the plan, he was expected to kick off the festivities in Leamington, Ont. at a street party hosted by employees of the century-old Highbury Canco tomato processing plant before heading west to join local steelworkers at an afternoon event in Regina, and then end his day at a community barbecue in Dawson City, Yukon.
The choice of venues was, of course, highly strategic. July 1 also marked the official coming-into-effect of more than $16 billion in retaliatory tariffs against a wide range of American products — including Heinz ketchup, which was manufactured at that very same Leamington plant until 2014, when the company moved its production line back to the United States — which were launched in response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s move to hike surcharges on Canadian steel and aluminum exports. But whether by coincidence or design, Trudeau’s whistlestop tour — which saw him touch down in no fewer than three time zones over the course of the day — may also arm the Liberals with fresh ammo to fire back at the latest line of attack emanating from their Conservative rivals: namely, that Trudeau periodically books off “personal” days — including, although not always, during the regular five-day work week. According to the Conservatives, this amounts to going “on vacation.”
A few weeks ago, they set up a website — IsJustinTrudeauOnVacation.com — to track his hours, although it’s worth noting that their criteria for “vacation” also includes official international travel.
But the talking point really hit its stride after a CBC News report revealed that the National Capital Commission had picked up the tab for tens of thousands of dollars in upgrades to the official residence at Harrington Lake — or, as the Conservatives refer to it, “Justin Trudeau’s summer retreat,” despite the fact that his predecessor, Stephen Harper, and his family also made liberal — no pun intended — use of it during his tenure.
A few days after the initial story broke, it also came out that, in fact, Trudeau had personally paid for some of the more eyebrow-raising amenities, including a sauna and a new swingset, but by that point, the Conservative outrage machine had been at full blast for long enough that the corrections may well have been lost in the din, as far as the overarching public narrative.
Most maddening, however, at least from the Liberal perspective, is that the entire campaign wouldn’t be possible if one of Trudeau’s first moves after taking office hadn’t been to institute a new, ostensibly pro-transparency policy of releasing his daily itinerary — and by daily, that means every single day, not just those that include public appearances, as was the case in the past.
This, of course, means that his days off — which, it’s worth noting, don’t always include weekends — are dutifully logged into the record, where they can not only be perused by the public but turned into a weapon by his political opponents.
It’s worth noting that neither Conservative leader Andrew Scheer nor New Democrat Party chief Jagmeet Singh have followed his lead: In both cases, their respective parties issue advisories only when they actually want people (or at least reporters) to be aware of their schedules.
As a result, Team Trudeau can’t return fire on the “personal day” battle by tallying up how much of their time is off the clock.
They can, however, take some comfort in knowing that, should they be obliged to turn over the keys to Harrington Lake after the 2019 election, the next prime minister will likely be compelled to keep up the practice, simply because it would look distinctly odd to drop it.
Here’s hoping that they do, if only so future prime ministers will have to spend more time explaining — and defending — what they do while they’re on the job rather than responding to pointed accusations about how they spend their non-working hours.
Kady O’Malley is a member of the parliamentary press gallery in Ottawa and writes about politics, procedure and process for iPolitics. She also appears regularly on CBC television and radio.