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John Ivison: Dominic LeBlanc’s illness no excuse for taking advantage of his Irving connections

John Ivison: Dominic LeBlanc’s illness no excuse for taking advantage of his Irving connections
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Dominic LeBlanc is a subscriber of the view that politics should be fun — that politicians have no right to be pompous or po-faced.

Visitors to the House of Commons are advised to disregard what passes for debate between the leaders and focus exclusively on LeBlanc, constantly taunting and teasing, ribbing and razzing his opponents. The facial expressions alone are comedy gold.

At 51, he is relatively young for someone who has been elected six times, but he is from Canadian political royalty: the son of a former governor-general, Romeo LeBlanc, and a Member of Parliament who learned retail politics at the feet of Jean Chrétien while working as his summer chauffeur. In 1990, Chrétien won a byelection to represent the New Brunswick seat of Beauséjour, the same riding LeBlanc has held since 2000. While driving him around on the campaign trail, the young Liberal learned from the master to buy gum and gas (in small amounts) at every service station, in order to meet as many people as possible.

LeBlanc once worried that his Bacchanalian inclinations would disbar him from high office, but when thorny problems have arisen in this government he has been Justin Trudeau’s go-to guy — providing valuable parliamentary experience for the fledgling government as House leader; a steady hand as fisheries minister, after the previous incumbent resigned in disgrace; and a cheery disposition to disarm hostile provincial premiers as intergovernmental affairs minister.

LeBlanc of all people should have known that accepting a free flight from the Irvings would blow up

All this is by way of preamble. LeBlanc is a welcome addition to Canadian national life. The news that he was being treated for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was greeted with dismay on all sides of the House; the update that he had successfully undergone three treatments and intended to run in the fall election was received with relief.

Yet the revelation that he benefited from the use of a private aircraft operated by New Brunswick’s Irving family is not excused by his illness.

LeBlanc’s filing with the ethics commissioner revealed he accepted a return flight from Moncton to Montreal for a “medical consultation” last month. His office said his immune system was compromised, so his doctors said he could not travel on a commercial flight.

It is, to be fair, a long drive — about 10 hours each way. But that would have been the only option open to most Canadians.

LeBlanc of all people should have known that accepting a free flight from the Irvings would blow up. After all, it did once before. He hit the headlines in 2003 for using the private Irving jet for political business and pleasure. He was parliamentary secretary to the defence minister at the time, but it later emerged that five Chrétien-era ministers had also taken complimentary trips to the Irving fishing lodge in New Brunswick. The resulting furor nearly claimed the head of industry minister Allan Rock, who went on such a trip while health minister in 2001. In his subsequent portfolio, the opposition parties accused him of presenting an aid package to cabinet that would have helped struggling Canadian shipbuilders, including the Irvings. Rock denied any conflict, but under opposition pressure in 2003 he apologized in the House for taking the trip.

LeBlanc has been a long-time friend of James D. Irving, the company’s president, and has already set up a conflict of interest “screen” to prevent him participating in any government decisions that impact the Irvings.

But that doesn’t give him carte blanche to ignore the conflict of interest rules, which clearly state that no minister shall accept travel on a private aircraft, unless required to by his or her job.

In this case, that rules appears to have been waived because the ethics commissioner gave prior approval. Questions to the commissioner’s office on the reasons for granting such a waiver were not answered on privacy grounds.

To be clear, it is very much to be hoped that LeBlanc recovers his health. The spirit of laughter he brings to politics has been missed.

But there is a sense in much of the rest of the country that things are too cozy in New Brunswick — that it is not a province that questions itself too deeply, and that one giant conglomerate has too much influence when it comes to the media and politics.

LeBlanc himself was found to have violated the ethics act when, as fisheries minister, he awarded a license to harvest Arctic surf clams to a group that had a connection to his family.

Jagmeet Singh has been getting a bad press but the NDP leader got it right when he said of Trudeau’s vacation on the Aga Khan’s private island that there seem to be two worlds — one where everyone else lives, and another for Liberals and their powerful, well-connected friends.

Dominic LeBlanc should get the very best care that Canada can offer. But he of all people should have anticipated the backlash.

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