June 16, 2016 / 6:07 PM / 4 years ago

Canada PM pushes work-life balance, cabinet too busy to listen

WINNIPEG/OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he is so committed to “work-life balance” that he took a whole day off during a work trip to Japan last month to celebrate his wedding anniversary. It’s an example he wants his cabinet to follow.

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives to sign a book of condolences for the victims of the shootings at a gay nightclub in Orlando, at the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, June 14, 2016. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

If only it were so easy, his ministers say.

Trudeau’s forthright move while abroad for an important foreign visit followed a 2015 election campaign where he stressed the need for more flexible work hours and parent-leave options for Canadians.

While such luxuries are admirable goals, some of his young Liberal ministers struggle to find a balance between their portfolios and their families.

“Who do you love more? Me or Justin Trudeau?” Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland said her six-year-old son asked her as she prepared to fly to Japan with the prime minister.

“That was quite heartbreaking,” the 47-year-old mother of three told a recent panel discussion in Winnipeg, saying she felt inadequate both at home and at the office.

“I worry about my kids and also my husband. And I worry at work - I worry my officials will think, ‘Oh God, we’re the department that has the mom as a minister.’”

Such angst was absent when Trudeau, 44, came to power last November, promising to boost the role of women in society. He’s already become the first Canadian leader to name a gender-balanced cabinet.

Still, there is a chasm between his words and a political system tilted toward labor in a country in which the average Canadian works 1,704 hours annually, more than in Germany and Australia, but less than in the United States, according to Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

“We need to be serious about a family-friendly House of Commons,” Freeland said in an interview.

Freeland is not alone. Environment Minister Catherine McKenna tries to turn off her mobile phone for two hours a night to spend time with her husband and three children.

Indian Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett tries to make time for family on Sunday evenings and long weekends. The pace of work is such that some exhausted aides need to be sent home.

Trudeau has been clear about the need to “recharge our batteries,” Bennett said. “When you’re over-tired, you get grumpy and then you’re not able to do a good job.”

The problem is not limited to the women in cabinet either.

Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains, who says he must fight for time with his two young daughters, on Wednesday told a business audience that he has not gotten work-life balance right.

Trudeau, pressed by Reuters about his ministers’ experiences, said quality of work was directly related to peoples’ home lives and how much they were sleeping.

“We recognize that being a minister, being a prime minister, is a very demanding job and getting that balance right continues to be a challenge,” he told reporters on June 10.

The Canadian prime minister is not the only world leader to see value in balance.

U.S. President Barack Obama sometimes takes time for tourism during trips abroad, such as a recent round of golf with British Prime Minister David Cameron at a course outside London.

Trudeau’s efforts suffered a setback on Wednesday when a committee probing ways of making Parliament more family-friendly decided against recommending the institution shut down on Fridays to allow legislators to return home earlier.

The measure met resistance from opposition legislators who said they needed to hold the government to account five days a week.

Trudeau is sensitive to ministers’ personal lives and tries to schedule meetings so they can make family or constituency commitments, said House leader Dominic LeBlanc.

“On an evening or a weekend, if you get a phone call from the Prime Minister, he begins by, ‘Sorry to bother you on a Saturday, but...’” he said.

Skeptics wonder how much Trudeau can achieve.

Chris Higgins, a professor at the University of Western Ontario’s Ivey Business School and co-author of three national studies on working life, is not convinced by the prime minister’s reason for downtime in Japan.

“What he’s doing has nothing to do with work-life balance. He’s just taking a day off,” he said in an interview. “People talk about (balance) a lot, but a lot of people don’t really want it. They really want to focus on their careers.”

Adding to the challenge is the enormity of Canada, the world’s second-largest country by area. It can take Liberal legislator Larry Bagnell 14 hours to fly home to the Yukon territory in the far northwest.

“It’s brutal. Two days of your life are gone, flying, per week,” said Bagnell, the father of children ages 4 and 7. “It’s very hard to do justice to time with your children.”

Reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa and Rod Nickel in Winnipeg; additional reporting by Roberta Rampton in Washington and Allison Lampert in Oshawa; Editing by Alan Crosby

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