01/23/2017 10:53 EST | Updated 01/23/2017 11:01 EST

This Scandal Is About The Prime Minister's Actions, Not The Aga Khan

In light of the prime minister's recent visit with the Aga Khan, a lot of people are asking questions about who the Aga Khan is and what his objectives are. I read with interest a recent piece here on Huffington Post by Riaz Charania, arguing that the Aga Khan's message is important, and also that the scandal surrounding the Trudeau vacation is "Much Trudeau About Nothing."

I agree with the first part, but not the second. This is a real scandal which raises real questions about Justin Trudeau's ethics. It in no way detracts from the charitable work of the Aga Khan. This scandal is about the prime minister's actions, not the Aga Khan's.

aga khan justin trudeau

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with the Aga Khan on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 17, 2016.

By way of background, the Aga Khan is the leader of the worldwide Ismaili Muslim community. He advocates for peace, tolerance, and universal education, among other things. He has had a close relationship with successive Canadian governments. The previous Conservative government gave him honorary citizenship and invited him to address Parliament in 2014. During his address, he said the following:

"I happily recall the establishment of the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat here in 2008 and the Prime Minister's description that day of our collaborative efforts to make Canada 'the headquarters of the global effort to foster peace, prosperity, and equality through pluralism.'"

In addition to praising Canada and the government in general terms, the Aga Khan explicitly praised the creation of the Office of Religious Freedom, since cancelled by the new Liberal government, saying:

"Canada has responded in notable ways, including the establishment -- just one year ago -- of the Office of Religious Freedom. Its challenges, like those facing the Centre for Global Pluralism, are enormous and its contributions will be warmly welcomed. And surely it will also serve as a worthy model for other countries."

The fact that the Aga Khan had a warm and positive relationship with the previous Canadian government should not suggest that the Aga Khan is partisan in any sense. Like virtually all major religious figures, he works with politicians but operates outside of party politics. Much of his praise for Canada was focused on those common Canadian values which are shared across party lines.

So the first bottom line is that the Aga Khan is greatly admired across the political spectrum.

When Justin Trudeau accepted the use of the Aga Khan's private aircraft, he chose to ignore his legal obligations under Canadian law.

The second bottom line is that the important work of the Aga Khan, and his personal relationship with many Canadians and Canadian politicians, has no bearing on the prime minister's obligation to follow the law. Section 12 of the Conflict of Interest Act says the following:

"No minister of the Crown, minister of state or parliamentary secretary, no member of his or her family and no ministerial adviser or ministerial staff shall accept travel on non-commercial chartered or private aircraft for any purpose unless required in his or her capacity as a public office holder or in exceptional circumstances or with the prior approval of the Commissioner."

Importantly, this section of the act puts the onus on the prime minister not to accept non-commercial travel. For the purposes of preventing conflict of interest, the prime minister has unique legal obligations. It is not the obligation of someone who isn't the prime minister to know these rules -- responsibility for following these unique rules belongs to the prime minister. And these rules are important for ensuring that politicians are not subject to undo influence.

When Justin Trudeau accepted the use of the Aga Khan's private aircraft, he chose to ignore his legal obligations under Canadian law. The Aga Khan broke no rules; it was in accepting the flight that Trudeau broke the rules.

Mr. Charania argued that it is important for political leaders to engage with the Aga Khan, and I agree. That is why the previous government brought the Aga Khan to Parliament, helping all Canadians to hear his message. Those who feel that this scandal is much ado about nothing could well propose that the law be changed -- but while the law is in force, the prime minister is legally obliged to follow it.

If Justin Trudeau feels that this law cramps his style on vacation, then he should propose changes to it that the House of Commons can debate. In the meantime, the prime minister cannot simply behave as if the law does not exist.

It is unfortunate that this scandal of Justin Trudeau's may be how the Aga Khan comes to be known to Canadians, as opposed to through his important charitable work. But this could be fixed if Justin Trudeau simply did the right thing and stood up to take personal responsibility for his own actions. It was his decision to break the rules, and it is up to him, not the Aga Khan, to make things right.

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