Canada Kelly McParland: How both Trudeau and Air Canada share the same cluelessness
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Every once in a while some poor soul boggled by the seeming bottomlessness of government ineptitude wonders aloud, “Why can’t government be run like a business?”
There are plenty of answers to that question. One goes like this: Be careful what you wish for. Judging by the things politicians and corporate leaders get up to, there’s often little to separate the two in the battle for supremacy in cluelessness.
Take, for example, Air Canada’s reaction when Canadians learned that, after months of pleading poverty and begging for a rescue package from Ottawa, the airline had awarded generous bonuses to a bunch of its executives for the job they did propping up the airline. A mix of executives and managers would share $10 million, plus some special share-purchase options, to make up for salary cuts resulting from the near collapse of the industry.
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The recipients, the airline said, “reacted urgently, decisively and skillfully to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the company.”
The bonuses were awarded last year, at the same time the airline was pressing for a bailout. In arguing for federal help at the time, then chief executive officer Calin Rovinescu said the industry was in “catastrophic territory.”
“This is hundreds of times worse than 9/11, SARS, or the global financial crisis — quite frankly combined,” hethe Financial Post a year ago. “Right now, we’re closed to business by government decree.” The airline, he , needed a rescue plan or a lifting of restrictions. “Either one or the other or both. But it can’t be neither.”
In the end Air Canada got almost $6 billion. Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said it was made clear the bailout wasn’t intended to line the pockets of executives. “On a going-forward basis, it was very important for me that we impose strict limits on executive compensation,” she said.
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Yet whenof the bonuses broke, Air Canada professed to be taken aback. A statement responding to the public backlash was all wounded pride. Airline bosses had worked super-duper extra hard to keep the company operating in tough conditions, it said. The payouts were “consistent with compensation outcomes” at other big firms hurt by the pandemic, and “in conformity with the Corporation’s governance principles and best practices.” Jeez, what do people expect, an executive vice-president to go home hungry? We’ve got Porsches to pay for, people.
It shouldn’t take a PhD in communications strategy to understand that rewarding high-earners at the same time you’re begging for a bailout isn’t the wisest of courses. Especially if the recipients earned their payoffs largely byothers: cutting 20,000 , cancelling thousands of , closing down dozens of air routes and refusing to passengers who paid for flights they didn’t receive. That Air Canada would get all snippy and offended at the same time it continues to need Ottawa’s help in lifting travel restrictions only underlines the curious state of its mind set.
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Even after Prime Minister Justin TrudeauFreeland in denouncing the bonuses, Rovinescu couldn’t manage to appear contrite. His airline had just succeeded in making the country’s two most powerful politicians look foolish, yet a accompanying a partial backdown was about as unrepentant as you could get. Far from giving ground, he the furor on “considerable confusion, misinformation and public disappointment” at the payout. Cripes, hadn’t he already agreed to take a $490,000 cut to his pay? OK, OK, he’d donate his share of the bonus payout to charity. Happy now?
While the airline bristled, Trudeau was striding smartly intoof those bogs he seems incapable of avoiding. After months of telling Canadians to stay home, shutting borders and forcing air travellers to isolate in hotel rooms — and offering no coherent reason for doing so — he let it be known he’d be flying off to England to attend a G7 leaders summit, followed by a trip to Brussels.
Aware his trip might strike some as hypocritical, his office insisted the prime minister wouldn’t be getting any special treatment. On return, he’d have to quarantine in a hotel like everyone else.
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Well, maybe not exactly like everyone else. Trudeau wouldn’t be forced into some room near an airport in Toronto, Montreal, Calgary or Vancouver, like other returnees. He’ll get to go direct to Ottawa. Nor is it likely he’ll get the stale sandwiches, rude treatment and lousy room service other hapless travellers haveof, with inflated charges or to COVID outbreaks while putting up with the forced confinement.
Prime ministers require special security, of course. And it makes sense to isolate in Ottawa, given Trudeau has a special plane that can take him directly there. The question is, why is he going at all? No one has explained why the prime minister needs to appear in person at this particular summit at this particular time, when virtual attendance has sufficed for plenty of previous high-level gatherings, not to mention House of Commons sessions. Even after Ottawa revealed plans Wednesday to begin gradually lifting some restrictions, ordinary Canadians still can’t drive across the U.S. border. In many cases they can’t even visit the next province. So why is Trudeau flouncing off on a jaunt to Europe?
The answer is, because he can. He’s the prime minster and he wants to go, so he’s going. You’re not, so you can’t.
As with Canada’s biggest airline, he appears immune to the impression he gives, or the resentment it breeds. Once he returns, perhaps he’ll announce he did a great job, and give himself a bonus.
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