Should Trudeau be able to charge speaking fees?

The issue of Justin Trudeau charging speaking fees reared once again its head late last week when he admitted that human error saw a couple of travel claims for said engagements got bundled in with his parliamentary claims, and he quickly repaid them once this was pointed out.  But immediately came the renewed condemnations that as a sitting MP, he had no business charging fees for speaking engagements because as an MP, it was part of his job to speak.

Except that it’s not his job.  Motivational speaking, which was really what Trudeau was engaged in on a professional basis, is not part of an MP’s responsibilities.  Granted, most MPs don’t actually know what their job description entails – a Samara Canada study showed that while most MPs embrace pretty fuzzy notions about representing ridings, communities or party interests, and others act as a kind of ombudsman for their constituents’ interactions with the civil service, almost none knew their actual role.  That role, it bears reminding, is to hold the government to account, and to scrutinize the estimates.

Nowhere in the context of holding government to account and controlling the public purse does motivational speaking come into play.  While it may be admirable for an MP to want to go to a fundraiser in their riding and speak, and for some MPs and senators who have a higher public profile – like a Justin Trudeau or a Marc Garneau – it’s not unexpected that groups would want them to come and speak.  But the issue of who pays for things like transport and accommodations quickly becomes an issue.  And if, as some people seem to suggest, that making speeches is part of an MP’s job, then why not use their parliamentary resources to do so?

This particular issue has been playing out over the past year down the hall in the Senate, in particular around Senator Pamela Wallin’s expense claims.  Because there is a rather wide latitude given to what constitutes “Senate business,” Wallin chose to interpret that in a manner that would allow her to speak about her interests as a Senator – namely “the role of women in public life, Canada’s mission in Afghanistan, and support for our troops.”  Conservative Senator Thahn Ngo, a Vietnamese-Canadian, has felt it is his job to reach out to other Vietnamese-Canadian groups across the country and has been using his Senate resources to travel to make speeches to them.  And because both could argue that it was for “Senate business,” they had been claiming those expenses.

It becomes an exercise in deductive reasoning for the critics of both Trudeau and Wallin to square their positions.  On the one hand, if it’s a parliamentarian’s job to give speeches, why shouldn’t they be able to claim travel expenses?  If, on the other hand, it’s not part of their actual responsibilities and they shouldn’t use their parliamentary resources to make such engagements, then why is it a problem for them to hire a speaker’s bureau that sets up the arrangements, including associated travel and other fees?

Let’s also not forget that Trudeau had gone through the effort of clearing each of his engagements with the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner before he took them on.  Each was cleared.  Trudeau, Garneau, Wallin, Senator Larry Smith, and other parliamentarians who also do professional public speaking and engage a speaker’s bureau, have drawn lines around the topics that they speak about, so that they are not speaking from a public policy perspective but rather from their experiences before entering public life.  And yes, Justin Trudeau did more than just teach before being elected, as he was also chair of the board of directors of Katimavik for a period of time, which does give him some prior experience when it comes to talking about youth engagement.

And what about the practice of charging hefty speaking fees to charities and non-profit organizations?  Aside from the fact that this is standard practice across the board for these kinds of organizations to leverage that fee into using the celebrity of their speaker to raise even more funds, barring MPs from engaging in the practice removes the agency of those organizations of making the decision for themselves.  This isn’t selling access to cabinet ministers in the guise of a fundraiser, remember – it is a legitimate professional activity, and MPs are allowed to maintain some level of outside professional activity, whether it’s maintaining their surgical credentials or running the family farm.

Oh, but the Grace Foundation lost all of that money!  Yes, but whose fault is that?  While one could argue endlessly about the optics of Trudeau accepting the fee, the facts had demonstrated that the event had been an organizational failure on the part of the Foundation, and the demands that Trudeau repay the money were shown to be partisan trouble making by a former board member.  When Trudeau offered to repay the fee – not only to the Grace Foundation, but also to any other organization that he spoke for – no one took him up on the offer.  That says something about the value they ascribed to his public speaking.

The focus on the optics of MPs charging for speeches distracts from the larger issue that MPs should be spending their time actually doing their jobs of holding government to account and scrutinizing estimates.  The problem is that most MPs have largely absolved themselves of these responsibilities in order to focus on other areas, whether it’s promoting private members’ bills that will never see the light of day, or fobbing off their homework of the estimates to the Parliamentary Budget Officer.

But if the choice is between having MPs deciding that speechifying is part of their job and inevitably using parliamentary resources for it, or having a structure in place where they have a speaker’s bureau making the arrangements for these kinds of engagements that are in turn vetted by the Ethics Commissioner, then it seems pretty clear that the latter is the preferable option.


Other articles by Dale Smith

Committing to open nominations

The Angus Standard On Election Rules

Vacant senate seats breaking Confederation’s promises

Follow Dale Smith on twitter: @journo_dale


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