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Another day, another attempt to manufacture outrage by Canada’s conservative media ecosystem.
This time, it’s over the prime minister’s two-week summer vacation, one that has outlets like True North tweeting: “Amid concerns about a looming recession in Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is hitting the beaches of Costa Rica for a two-week vacation — and taxpayers are paying for big parts of it.”
Even mainstream outlets like The Canadian Press, Global News and the CBC are treating his decision to take a well-deserved break as a legitimate news story. If there’s an upside to this latest apparent outrage, it’s that we’ve moved on from talking about the prime minister’s haircut.
Family vacations have long played a starring role in the Trudeau narrative. But the relentless focus on how and where he spends his private time — and yes, prime ministers deserve to have some of that, too — is about more than just the media’s inability to take their eyes off him. It’s also yet another red flag for anyone considering running for public office, especially if they happen to have young children.
In an August 2016 piece for Policy Options, Jennifer Ditchburn pointed out the contrast between the attention paid to the Trudeau family’s vacations and the broader conversations about the importance of work-life balance. This problem isn’t exclusive to Liberal prime ministers: “Anyone who has worked in or around politics knows what the life is like,” Ditchburn wrote. “There isn’t any real time off, the BlackBerry is always on, someone is always asking for something. Keeping marriages together is tough.”
On some level, this is understandable. Politics is a high-stress, high-pressure job, and there are any number of other professions out there that exact a similar toll. But while other careers and workplaces have made strides in the direction of a better work-life balance, politics and public life have probably gone backwards over the last decade. That’s because of the growing influence of social media, which can make it nearly impossible for elected officials to disconnect and decompress the way they used to — and the way they need to.
The challenge here — well, one of them — is that eliciting sympathy for elected officials is only slightly less difficult than trying to increase the popularity of colonoscopies. A member of Parliament makes $185,800, has paid staff and travel and can earn a very generous pension with just six years of service. Of course, this is the job they signed up for, even if they didn’t necessarily understand how taxing it might be. Of all the world’s problems, the mental health of politicians ranks about as low on the list as you can get.
But there is a cost here that we all pay, and it comes in the form of elected bodies that don’t accurately represent the population at large. As of the last election, just over 30 per cent of MPs were women, a proportion that puts Canada in 59th place worldwide. This isn’t just a bad thing if you’re a self-described feminist (or “woke,” as conservatives seem to love saying these days). It’s also bad if you’re a participating member of society and want to see less inequality and more justice.
As has been documented time and time again, having more women serve in elected roles would result in better and more representative decision-making. Or, as Vox’s Sarah Kiff wrote in 2017, “Women legislators are more likely to introduce legislation that specifically benefits women. They’re better at bringing funding back to their home districts. And, to put it bluntly, they just get more shit done: A woman legislator, on average, passed twice as many bills as a male legislator in one recent session of Congress.”
Opinion: If we want to ensure that our elected bodies look like the public they’re created to serve, we need to stop punishing the people in them for having private lives that include children and families, writes columnist @maxfawcett. #Trudeau
They also have to deal with a whole range of deterrents their male colleagues don’t. As the late Anne Kingston wrote in 2019: “Female politicians remain hindered by systemic biases, sexism, and double standards, be it in media coverage, threats of violence, and hateful online trolling.” It’s not hard to see how the excessive focus on how political leaders spend their family time would only add to this unequal burden. “One wonders what message women interested in federal politics drew from the coverage of the Trudeau family vacation (to Tofino, B.C., in 2016),” Ditchburn wrote in her Policy Options piece. “Maybe ‘Don’t even think about taking time off with your kids.’”
If we want to ensure that our elected bodies look like the public they’re created to serve, we need to stop punishing the people in them for having private lives that include children and families. And if we want to avoid having them filled with political lifers and professional masochists, we need to be willing to cut those elected officials a break now and then.
That means letting them, including our prime ministers, take a vacation once in a while. Regardless of their partisan stripes, they’ve more than earned it.