In The Media

Down time for prime ministers travelling abroad has always been fraught

by Bruce Cheadle (feat. Hugh Segal)

The Globe and Mail
May 24, 2016

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that he and his wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau would take Wednesday off to celebrate their wedding anniversary during a visit to Japan, critics immediately jumped on the micro-vacation as another example of Liberal entitlement.

“I’ll see your hubbub about nannies and extra help and raise you an anniversary abroad. Bold,” Andrew MacDougall, a former communications director for Stephen Harper, quipped on Twitter.

Trudeau, whose office won’t say how many staff he has in tow, defended the prime ministerial down time during the four-day Japan trip, calling it an example of “the kind of work-life balance that I’ve often talked about as being essential in order to be able to be in service of the country with all one’s very best and that’s certainly something I’m going to continue to make sure we do.”

The couple were to spend the night at a traditional Japanese inn before Trudeau heads to the G7 summit on Thursday in the country’s Ise-Shima region. Trudeau said he’d personally pay for their anniversary night out.

Whatever your take on the Trudeaus’ 11th anniversary hiatus, it calls to mind a different age when prime ministerial down days were a regular occurrence.

Former prime minister Pierre Trudeau often took one or more of his boys with him when he travelled abroad in the 1970s and early ’80s — leaving a legacy of news photos of the current office holder as a child with figures such as Cuban president Fidel Castro, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher or Pope John Paul II.

Patrick Gossage, a former press secretary to Pierre Trudeau, recalls the prime minister disappearing for a three-day vacation after the 1978 Bonn summit.

“This was a memorable moment,” Gossage said in an interview Tuesday. “The press went crazy. ... He did that from time to time.”

Trudeau once took the entire media contingent to Mogadishu, Somalia, to see a durbar horse race and on another occasion went “really strictly sight-seeing” to Saudi Arabia, said Gossage. “Believe me, that was tourism.”

Brian Mulroney, who followed the elder Trudeau in office, largely escaped the travel controversies of his predecessor, sticking to business while abroad even if the pre-Internet media pace was less punishing.

Hugh Segal, Mulroney’s former chief of staff, says there’s been a change in workplace “ethos” that reflects both the mix of work and play favoured by the millennial generation and changes in information technology.

“Frankly, because people are digitally connected, most Canadians know that when they’re on holiday, they’re actually still connected to their work,” Segal said in an interview.

“The barriers between work and holiday aren’t as precise as they used to be. That is a very big difference. Don’t forget: when I was chief of staff to the prime minister, we didn’t have email.”

In January 1998, a devastating ice storm that hit Quebec and Ontario prompted the prime minister of the day, Jean Chretien and the two provincial premiers to skip the start of a scheduled, week-long “team Canada” trade mission to South America. A bored news photographer managed to shoot a photo of the top Liberal cabinet minister on the trip reading a newspaper by the hotel pool in Santiago, Chile — all while much of eastern Canada froze in the dark.

The publication of that single photo had a demonstrable chill on media management during subsequent international trips.

Chretien always endeavoured to feed the press, even on total down days — such as one Sunday scrum in Buenos Aries when he grudgingly agreed to meet reporters after attending mass with his wife.

The assembled media, with nothing on the agenda, were left scrambling for questions. One had the temerity to ask the prime minister what he’d done at church that morning.

“I prayed for you,” Chretien shot back, jutting out his chin.

When Paul Martin and his wife toured the Great Wall of China during an exhausting global circumnavigation in January 2005, the prime minister took the entire media group along with him — thus sidestepping charges that he was holidaying on the public dime.

And Stephen Harper’s grim, workaholic travel schedules became legendary.

The Conservative prime minister frequently froze out the news media travelling with him, but never personally got off the clock.

In 2011, Harper flew 26 hours from Perth, Australia back to Ottawa for a cabinet meeting before getting back on his plane and jetting to France for a G20 summit. A Commonwealth summit in Perth and the G20 had been planned as one continuous trip abroad, but flooding in Bangkok cancelled a scheduled bilateral stop in Thailand that was supposed to bridge the day and a half between events.

Harper flew his entire entourage literally halfway around the world rather than spend a single down day on the road.



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