Ethicist 'shocked' by politicians travelling abroad during pandemic

·4 min read

A Canadian ethicist says he is "shocked" by how many elected officials have been revealed to have travelled abroad during the holiday season.

"I think I was like everyone else. I think I was shocked. I was shocked when it happened once or twice. But now I'm sort of gobsmacked that it's happened so many times. These politicians obviously thought the rules didn't apply to them," said Neil McArthur, director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba, on CBC Saskatchewan's Morning Edition.

"We are all being asked to make huge sacrifices and those sacrifices only work if we're all in it together."

Saskatchewan is the latest province to have a politician lose responsibilities after making an international trip over the holidays. Saskatchewan Party MLA Joe Hargrave resigned from cabinet on Monday. The demotion cost Hargrave his additional $50,497 allowance as a cabinet minister.

Hargrave said he travelled to Palm Springs over Christmas to sell a home he owned.

On Monday, Premier Scott Moe said he realized that what Hargrave did was wrong, even though he had been pre-informed of Hargrave's trip.

"It's clear that his decision to travel to Palm Springs just before Christmas was an error of judgment, and it sent the wrong message at a time when everyone in this province was being asked to limit their household gatherings over Christmas and the holiday season," Moe said.

On December 31, Hargrave said, "I apologize for this error in judgment, and am returning to Canada as soon as my self-isolation period is over in California on Jan. 5."

Moe said government MLAs cannot travel outside the province unless it's for an emergency or pressing government business. Moe said Minister of Corrections and Policing Christine Tell travelled to California in October to visit a sick relative.

University of Regina political scientist Tom McIntosh said recent revelations about Canadian politicians travelling outside the country is "reinforcing the perception that there are two sets of rules that it's 'do as I say and not as I do.'"

McIntosh said the longer-term question if whether this weakens the province's ability to have the public follow health guidelines.

"They are elected to lead and part of leading is leading by example and a failure to do that in some instances like this can cost you your job."

McIntosh said MPs or MLAs being demoted for travel sets an example to their colleagues.

"I think one of the reasons for maybe not throwing them out of caucus is do you want them in that caucus every week to be an object lesson to everybody else."

Canadian politicians losing responsibilities for travel

Provincial and federal politicians across Canada have faced criticism and consequences for travelling internationally despite public health recommendations that called for avoiding non-essential travel.

On Monday, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney accepted the resignations of his chief of staff and a cabinet minister.

Kenney also demoted five United Conservative Party MLAs for their international holiday travel.

Rod Phillips resigned as Ontario's finance minister last week following a trip to the Caribbean island of Saint Barthélemy, known as St. Barts.

Aaron Penson
Aaron Penson

Manitoba NDP MP Niki Ashton lost her critic roles after a trip to Greece to visit a sick family member.

Liberal MPs Kamal Khera and Sameer Zuberi resigned from government roles for travelling.

McArthur, the ethicist, said that when the public sees those in power not following rules they may ask, "if they don't make these sacrifices, why should I?"

Hargrave was not breaking any official travel rules in Saskatchewan or Canada. He said he was following the isolation guidance and deemed the trip to sell his property "necessary."

McArthur said the bar is not only whether or not laws were broken.

"We all knew that you were not supposed to travel if you didn't have to. The guidance from public health authorities was very clear. I think we expect all people, but especially politicians, to behave ethically and not just to avoid doing things that are explicitly illegal."

McArthur said questions need to be asked of leaders, who in the case of Moe and Ontario Premier Doug Ford were aware their cabinet ministers were travelling.

Kenney said he was at fault for not telling his MLAs not to travel.

"I think there is a real question about why these leaders allowed these people to travel. I think they should have been clear in their guidance for sure," McArthur said.

"I think there was just obviously a culture of disregarding these rules that really surprises me."