Straight Talk
LORNE GUNTER - Greeting card on legs: There are three ethical issues I have with Trudeauís paid speeches

Federal Liberal Leadership front-runner Justin Trudeau speaks to students on Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013 at Trent University in Peterborugh.

Credits: CLIFFORD SKARSTEDT/QMI AGENCY

LORNE GUNTER | QMI AGENCY

Justin Trudeau announced his intention to seek the Liberal nomination for the Montreal constituency of Papineau on Feb. 22, 2007.

From that day until last spring, when he stopped taking fees for speeches, he has earned nearly $1 million in speaking fees.

This strikes some as unethical. And in a moral sense I agree, particularly since Trudeau took most of that money from school boards, library associations, youth groups and charities.

But the golden boy of Canada's Liberal party has broken no parliamentary rules. Those who have criticized Trudeau's actions - including many MPs - need to work to change House of Commons' regulations that permit opposition MPs and government backbenchers to make extra income from giving speeches, something most members simply assume is part of their public and political duty.

I'll get back to the ethics of this in a minute, but the first question I asked myself when the details of Trudeau's speaking credits became public last Thursday was: Who would pay to hear him talk in the first place? The man is a vapid tangle of feel-good platitudes about youth, potential, concern, caring and the future.

His stump speeches on the leadership campaign trail these last few months have been almost entirely content-free.

One can only imagine how intellectual unchallenging his after-dinner addresses are to the Algonquin and Lakeshore Catholic District School Board, the Literacy for Life Saskatoon branch or the Ontario Camping Association.

I'll bet at the latter event he said things like, "Strive to pitch your tents on life's higher ground, young people. Hike through the forests of raised expectations. And don't be afraid to paddle your lives' canoes in uncharted waters."

Still, somehow, this greeting card on legs managed in just over five years to convince 80 or more organizations to cough up significant cash to hear his motivational mush.

In one two-day stretch in April 2008, he was paid $45,000 for giving speeches back-to-back to the Packaging Association of Canada, the Brookfield Properties Corp., the Regional Municipality of Halton and the University of Ottawa.

Trudeau raked in all of this money - about two-thirds before he was elected an MP in October 2008 and approximately another third since - in $10,000 to $20,000 increments.

The total ($966,500) does not include his travel expenses, meals or hotels which the groups hiring him were also expected to pick up.

You can't fault a man for doing well for himself and his family by doing the thing he does best, especially when he is breaking no laws.

Trudeau who, to his credit, released the list of speaking receipts himself, sought and received approval from Mary Dawson, the federal ethics commissioner, to continue giving speeches for cash after he was first elected in Papineau in 2008.

It is permitted under Commons' rules for MPs who are not cabinet ministers or parliamentary secretaries to earn outside income, and according to public disclosures

151 of 308 do.

There are three problems I have with the ethics of Trudeau's paid speeches, however.

First, he often missed sitting days and votes in the Commons to be away giving talks, which means he put his own ambition and enrichment ahead of his duty to his constituents.

Second, while he claims not to have promoted himself as an MP to get more gigs, his average fee for the 63 speeches he gave before being elected was $10,936. For the 17 after he took office, it has been $16,323 - a bonus of nearly 50%.

And, finally, it is far too easy for organizations seeking influence in Ottawa to slip a prominent MP a few thousand for a half hour of pontificating. So the practice should be abolished.

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