Trudeau’s holiday travel didn’t break the rules, ethics commissioner tells MPs

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s trip to Jamaica didn’t break the rules that govern gifts and travel for elected officials because the stay was a gift from a longtime family friend, Interim Ethics Commissioner Konrad Von Finckenstein told MPs Tuesday.

Speaking to members of the House of Commons ethics committee, Von Finckenstein confirmed that Trudeau’s office consulted with his office prior to leaving for Jamaica. He said his office researched Trudeau’s relationship with businessman Peter Green and concluded that he is a friend of Trudeau who has no relations with the government of Canada.

Von Finckenstein said the rules governing the gifts and travel that MPs can accept makes an exception for gifts or travel given by parents or friends.

“What we have here is clearly a generous gift but it is between people who are friends and I don’t see why, just because they are well off, they can’t exchange gifts,” he said.

Von Finckenstein said Green has been Trudeau’s guest at the prime minister’s official residence at Harrington Lake. Conservative MP Michael Barrett pointed out that this residence is paid for by taxpayers.

But the rules on MPs’ travel could be about to change. Members of the ethics committee voted unanimously Tuesday in favour of a motion from NDP MP Matthew Green for two parliamentary committees to consider changing the rules to prohibit MPs from accepting sponsored travel. Under Green’s proposal, MPs would be allowed two international trips per year, paid for out of their MP office budgets.

Currently, the rules allow MPs to accept trips sponsored by interest groups provided they declare the trip to the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner. Although the rules have been tightened to prevent groups registered to lobby the government from sponsoring travel, Canada’s MPs still benefit from thousands of dollars worth of international travel each year to countries such as Israel and Taiwan.

In 2022, MPs accepted $422,015 worth of sponsored travel to various destinations around the world.

While MPs can fund up to two trips each year to Washington, D.C or New York City out of their office budgets, other travel funded by Parliament has to be within Canada.

The ethics committee is expected to draft a letter in coming days recommending the change to Parliament’s procedure and House affairs committee and the House of Commons’ Board of Internal Economy, which oversees budgets and the parliamentary precinct.

Two men in suits, one wearing an orange mask, sit at a board table and talk.
Conservative MP Damien Kurek, left, talks with NDP MP Matthew Green prior to the start of an ethics committee meeting in Ottawa on July 22, 2020. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Green’s motion came as Liberal MPs raised the issue of a pricey trip to the U.K. taken by a group of Conservative MPs last summer — including one MP whose travel was sponsored by the right-of-centre Hungarian think-tank the Danube Institute.

Green said his proposal is intended to get Parliament to tighten the rules that allow groups to sponsor travel for MPs.

“What I am asking this committee to do, Mr. Chair, is to move beyond the political ambulance-chasing and start to provide a political, legislative remedy to close the gaps on this,” he said.

While the ethics commissioner’s office collects reports from MPs who have accepted sponsored travel and makes reports public on its website, Von Finckenstein said it’s up to Parliament to decide if sponsored travel should be prohibited.

“It is essentially a decision for you to make,” he told the committee. “I think it would be useful if you did it but that’s my personal opinion. I have no opinion as commissioner.”

Chairman of the CRTC Konrad von Finckenstein arrives to testify at a House of Commons committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa last February. The CRTC said Wednesday they are no longer pursuing a change to rules against false or misleading news.
Interim Ethics Commissioner Konrad von Finckenstein says he has no official position on eliminating sponsored travel for MPs, although he personally thinks it’s a good idea. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Pawel Dwulit)

Von Finckenstein’s appearance before the committee was initiated by opposition Conservative members of the committee looking to probe Trudeau’s communications with the ethics commissioner’s office about his trip to Jamaica over the Christmas holidays.

News reports indicated that Trudeau stayed at Green’s luxurious Prospect Estate resort in Jamaica. Market rates for that resort indicate the stay could be worth as much as $84,000.

Trudeau has defended his trip to Jamaica, saying that — like other Canadian families — his family took a vacation over the holidays and stayed with friends, and that all of the rules were followed.

Von Finckenstein also was called to testify about the rules that govern the gifts and travel MPs are allowed to accept.

Von Finckenstein is nearing the end of his appointment as interim ethics commissioner. He was appointed Aug. 30 for a period of six months, which expires on Feb. 29.

Canada has been without a permanent ethics commissioner since Mario Dion retired on Feb. 21, 2023.

Von Finckenstein told the committee Tuesday he has not been consulted on his potential successors in the position. He cited confidentiality rules when asked if the government had consulted him on renewing his interim appointment or appointing him to the position for the typical 7-year term.

Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch, praised the preliminary effort to end sponsored travel for MPs.

“But that is only one of many unethical loopholes in federal ethics rules that needs to be closed, and the ethics commissioner must also not be chosen by the ruling party cabinet in secret but instead through an independent, non-partisan process,” he said.