Some prime ministers don’t like to divulge their vacation spots, others don’t mind

Americans always knew where President Barack Obama was, even when he was vacationing with his family. Should Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Follow suit?.
Americans always knew where President Barack Obama was, even when he was vacationing with his family. Should Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Follow suit?. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson, File

Do Canadians need to know where the prime minister is vacationing?

Reporters in the United States are not only given details of their presidents’ vacations, some go along for the ride with the president and first family.

But there is no real protocol in Canada for vacationing leaders.

READ MORE: Trudeau makes the tabloids for his family vacation on small Caribbean island

The issue has come to light twice since Justin Trudeau took over the Prime Minister’s Office in 2015. Last winter, prime ministerial aides wouldn’t say where Trudeau, his wife and their children were vacationing over the holidays. Canadians only learned the specifics when celebrity gossip site TMZ published photos.

This year – though no photos have been leaked – Trudeau’s aides disclosed the family is in Nassau, Bahamas after repeated questioning from media.

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READ MORE: Trudeau and his staff expensed $2,000 for 2 nights in Toronto area; Harper expensed $0 for Saint Petersburg

There were similar headlines in the news 23 years ago.

In December 1993, Jean Chretien’s refusal to say where he was spending a week-long holiday caused “a furor,” according to some reports from the time – though others referred to the lack of divulgence as a “minor controversy.”

The Canadian Press reported it was “routine practice” for Chretien’s predecessor, Brian Mulroney, to release statements announcing where he was holidaying and for how long.

READ MORE: Trudeau will reimburse government for partial costs of family travel to Caribbean resort

But Chretien desired more privacy, arguing his days away from work were his own.

”Here in Canada there is a tradition that the privacy of the prime minister should be respected,” he told The Canadian Press in December 1993, upon returning from his vacation. (It turned out he was at a prestigious golf resort in Florida – not at the Palm Beach mansion of Power Corp.’s then-chair Paul Desmarais as some trying to get to the bottom of his vacation spot reported.)

The following year, much like Trudeau, questions about Chretien’s whereabouts during his week-long winter holiday were raised – and responded to with only a vague answer. (Again, reporters were told he was in Florida, but nothing more specific was offered.)

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The reason Trudeau’s office wanted to keep the family’s location under wraps was a matter of privacy, said spokesman Cameron Ahmad.

“Like many Canadians, the prime minister and his family are spending private time together over the holiday season,” Ahmad wrote in an email.

“In order to protect [their] privacy, we do not disclose the locations of their vacations prior to their departure.”

While the privacy a Canadian prime minister can expect while vacationing might be up for debate, disclosing any associated taxpayer-backed costs associated is not, says Canadian Taxpayer Federation national director, Aaron Wudrick.

“Should Canadians know which country he’s in? Probably. Do we need readouts six times daily about where he ate lunch and what leisure activities he engaged in? I don’t think so,” he said.

What’s important is the prime minister takes into consideration the costs he’s downloading on the taxpayer, Wudrick said.

READ MORE: As Trudeau takes day off in Japan, a look at past PMs’ official agendas

“I don’t think there should be any formal [spending] restrictions, but it’s about leading by example,” he said. “His government is running a deficit three times the size he campaigned on. In that context is it unreasonable to ask that he might show a bit of restraint in limiting the cost of personal trips that have considerable costs borne by taxpayers?”
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Questions regarding the costs associated with prime ministers’ vacations go way back. In fact, Chretien’s aides were compelled to tell reporters he was paying his own way at a hotel and defend his – and his governor general’s – use of the government’s Challenger jet, which costs upwards of $10,000 per flying hour.

“He does not decide how he travels. Nor do I,” Chretien said at the time. Chretien had, according to reports, asked to fly commercial but was told he couldn’t for security reasons.

Staff to former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper were forced in 2012 to announce he’d repaid commercial flight rates, accommodation and baseball and Broadway ticket costs for him, his daughter and two guests when it was revealed his 2011 Labour Day trip to Manhattan came with a more than $45,000 price tag.

And last year, Trudeau’s aides were forced to make a similar announcement when the costs of flying the Challenger to his Caribbean vacation emerged. In both Harper’s and Trudeau’s cases, their staff cited the “long-standing” federal policy limiting prime ministers’ travel to the Challenger for security reasons.