Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A Little Bit of Moonlight Limelight

There's a whole bundle of things we need to talk about, so lets get right down to it.

Last weekend, a note from a charity rocked Parliament Hill by asking Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau to return $20,000 from a speaking engagement that they said failed to produce results and left them running a negative from the event. Seizing the opportunity to talk about something other than the Senate for a moment, the Conservatives jumped quickly onto the band wagon they had already been riding and attacked Trudeau for charging a charity for his presence. 

It seemed a small relief for the Conservatives as the media hopped onto the story, and even Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall hopped aboard and condemned Trudeau for it and went as far as to suggested he should return cash for an event he did in Saskatoon. Then another day passes by and the small relief turns into a major headache.

As early as Saturday, the twitterverse was abuzz with rumours about Tory connections to the charity. While some might offhandedly dismiss this idea as a "liberal scheme", others took it a bit more seriously and began to do some digging. And bit by bit, the entire affair began to stink. 

It started with a reference to Judith Baxter, a member of the board for the Grace Foundation, being appointed to a position with museums in 2007 by the Conservatives. Then it followed that she also received a Diamond Jubilee medal, presented by her local Conservative MP Rob Moore (and her husband Glendon Baxter also sits on the riding association for Mr. Moore).

Then it comes out that the letter requesting a return of funds came from Mr. Moore through the PMO. That's too many ducks in a row to be considered coincidence at this point. 

And then enter small town print journalism. The Barrie Advance received some more information about Justin Trudeau's money loosing speaking events, along with a set of instructions for relating that information to their audience. The information and the directions came from Erica Meekes, a communications officer in the PMO. 

And rather than follow their directions that the information being released under "a source", the Barrie Advance shook the tree and published the story as coming from the PMO. Numerous people have already lauded The Advance for standing up for integrity and media freedom; and the accolades are well deserved. 

Harper, in his usual fashion, deflected questions following the G8 meeting in Ireland about the role the PMO played in releasing this information. Though he did use the opportunity to continue attacking Trudeau for taking money in the first place. 

Either way, the situation (which has not played out the way the Tories had hoped) at least has started a public discussion on the role expected of MPs. NDP MP Charlie Angus continues to present the best case, by framing public speaking and appearances as part of the job of an MP, not something that is billed as extra.

Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair has also chimed in on the issue, but in a less aggressive way than Harper. Mulcair has said that he doesn't care about the charges that took place before Trudeau became a MP; but he does care about charges that came after he was elected, and whether he skipped out on Parliamentary votes and duties in order to give these appearances. 

As that is a much more valid argument then the one being presented by Harper. MPs are elected to represent their constituents, and are paid well to do so, and it should be considered their full time job. If an MP does public speaking rounds while the House is adjourned, that's no real problem. But if they're jetting around the country, skipping votes and procedures in the House, one has to wonder their motivation for being there in the first place.

Jack Layton rightly called out Michael Ignatieff's poor attendance in the House during the last election, and it definitely affected the framing of the election. Trudeau has the danger of falling into the same trap, but to a worse degree if it comes out that he indeed skipped his primary job as an MP to offer his services as a public speaker. 

I feel we need to draw a distinction at this point. If an MP misses a vote in Parliament, because they are in their home riding attending a function for which they aren't being paid, I think that is an acceptable reason to be missing a vote or question period or what have you. But if a Parliamentarian, who would otherwise be in Ottawa, is being paid to speak of paid to do anything else that is where it starts to become suspect. 

We elect these people to represent us, and if they aren't in the House or in their riding doing their primary job, we need to start wondering their motivations for being there in the first place. And we also need to wait and see whether or not any public money was used to provide for transportation to and from these speaking events or for any expenses during them. 

If that turns out to be the case, then by all means lets throw the the book at him, but for now the only issue we really have is putting a secondary career ahead of his primary job. And while this does have the smacking of a PMO smear campaign, there are some valid questions to ask around this situation and we need to discuss what is and what isn't acceptable for an MP to do for a "moonlighting" career; if its even acceptable for an MP to moonlight at all.

As mentioned above, Brad Wall also waded into the debate in a somewhat awkward foray into a situation that doesn't really affect him. Wall called on Trudeau to repay the money, plus the funds paid for an event in Saskatoon, and slightly attacked Trudeau's character as well. There's been some speculation about why exactly Wall waded into this debate.

Murray Mandrake at the Star Phoenix has suggested that Wall, as Canada's most popular premier, condemned the action at the behest of the PMO. Leftdog, and I happen to share this view point, sees it rather as Wall's potential opening salvo in a federal politics run. Wall has denied interest in a federal run, but I'd say its safe to say Wall is an ambitious man, and ambitious men will always take an opening presented to them.

Harper, as I've pointed out before, is crashing and burning and taking the Conservative brand with him. If the knives come out at the Conservative Convention at the end of the month, the first knife comes from someone with their own leadership ambitions, and that could be someone like Wall. As a non-MP, Wall would be able to best distance himself from the current scandals and offer an alternative to any of the heir apparent currently in caucus; a fact, I'm sure Wall is well aware of. 

Though, Wall has seemingly tied himself up in the moonlighting intrigue in a less than flattering manner: since it's come out that current MLA and Sask Party caucus member Gene Makowsky was doing the same as Trudeau; giving speeches and charging for the privilege. Pat Atkinson, former NDP cabinet member, has also pointed out that former Sask Party MLA Serge LeClerc accepted speaking fees while in office and as a legislative secretary.

So, while Wall may be free of the scandals associated with the Tories, there's some examples of indulging his caucus in the same issues that are now causing trouble in Ottawa (which would allow anyone to paint Wall as cut from the same political cloth, and not the real beacon of change a federal leadership run would present him as.)

I'll close with a simple thought: there's an idea that being in office means serving the public interest, and that when you run for office, you put a bit of your life on hold to serve. That means an absence from your previous career, it means long hours away from family, and it means getting out around your constituency and meeting with your electors so you can represent their interests. Anyone who isn't committed to that idea, needs to question why they're running for office in the first place; and the Canadian electorate need to ensure that people who don't hold respect for the office and the job don't get to hold the office at all.

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