Opinion

Please, no questions for the finance minister: Robyn Urback

Just be patient. You will get your canned answers soon enough

Tax Reforms 20171016

Finance Minister Bill Morneau looks on as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a news conference about tax reforms in Stouffville, Ont., Monday. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

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As you all know, the finance minister has found himself in a few little pickles lately, so Bill Morneau made himself available and accountable, as per the Trudeau government's commitment to real change.

Indeed, there he was: available to be stared at in an Italian restaurant in Stouffville, Ont., Monday (but please direct your questions to the prime minister); and for a brief statement during a news conference in Montreal Tuesday (sorry, couldn't make it back for question period); and to again be stared at in the House of Commons Wednesday (when it's the "prime minister's question period," meaning Justin Trudeau is supposed to field all of the questions).

Trudeau tells reporters he will answer them not Morneau 2:06

Yes, clearly there are some issues that need to be addressed by the finance minister in a formal setting. For one, why did he opt against putting his $43 million worth of shares in Morneau Shepell in a blind trust, and why does Morneau Shepell think he did?

After a day or so of waiting for an answer and getting nothing (Morneau was busy sampling the menu offerings at that Stouffville pizzeria, and ostensibly he couldn't talk with his mouth full) CTV News found the answer itself: Morneau used a loophole in ethics law that would allow him to indirectly maintain ownership of his shares through the use of a holding company.

After railing on for months about "loopholes" exploited by small business owners, would the minister like to address the obvious irony here? Or perhaps explain why he waited two years to disclose his partnership in a private company that owns his villa in southern France?

And while we're on this openness and accountability kick: why did the Finance Department spend more than $200,000 on just the cover of its 2017 budget? And speaking of the budget, how come there was nothing in there about cutting the small business tax rate to nine per cent — you know, the type of thing that's typically included in a federal budget, especially after campaigning on a promise to do so — only to surprise everyone with an about-face Sunday evening, and then pretend it was the plan all along? 

And how does this government reconcile its goal of trying to close the gap between the personal income and business tax rates — which is how it has been trying to sell its tax reform proposals for the past several months — with its abrupt introduction of this new lower business rate, which only incentivizes incorporation.

These are all very important questions, and they will probably be addressed with vague, opaque talking points by Morneau himself, maybe Thursday afternoon. Just be patient. You will get your canned answers. In the interim, we should mind our manners and be thankful that Trudeau gave the press "a chance to talk to the prime minister," because Stephen Harper didn't even bother to stand there and say nothing. Trudeau, at least, stands there and talks while he says nothing. 

This same exercise in real change played out with a different minister earlier this year, when Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan was caught embellishing his role in Operation Medusa in 2006. During a speech in Delhi back in April, Sajjan, who was a major with the Canadian Forces during battle in Afghanistan, claimed to be the "architect" of Medusa, though that credit actually goes to now-retired major-general David Fraser. 

Sajjan was called out on his remarks, and after backing out of a few scheduled events, the defence minister — or possibly a hologram of Sajjan stuck on loop — appeared in question period to "acknowledge [his] mistake."

Question Period 20170406

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan was in the House to appear conciliatory, but not to actually clarify or explain how exactly one mistakenly takes credit for a military operation. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

"I'm not here to make any excuses for my mistake, or to give reasons for it," he repeated over and over. Rather, Sajjan was there to appear conciliatory, but not to actually clarify or explain how exactly one mistakenly takes credit for a military operation. The idea is to appear accountable, you see, while not actually addressing the questions in any meaningful way. Eventually, everyone gets so frustrated and exhausted with the futile exercise that they just move on — a rope-a-dope tactic perfected in the House of Commons. 

The finance minister would do well to follow this example. He should start by expressing his willingness to meet with the ethics commissioner for further clarity on how to best manage his assets, before gingerly segueing to his affinity for Canada's middle class (and those working hard to join it).

Why didn't Morneau put his holdings in a blind trust in the first place? Why yes, I'm certainly looking forward to meeting with the ethics commissioner for further guidance. Why didn't he disclose a private corporation that owns his villa in France? As I've said, I have now disclosed the private corporation that owns my villa in France. 

Why did the Department of Finance spend more than $200,000 on the cover of its 2017 budget? Mr. Speaker, this government is extremely proud of the plan it has put forward to help improve the lives of all Canadians. At what point did the government decide to abandon its promise to lower the small business tax rate, and then resuscitate it? Yes, this government is forging ahead with its plans for tax fairness.

You see, friends, when this government makes mistakes, it owns up to them — eventually and sort of, with little explanation. And usually only after those meddling reporters have dug up too much dirt to ignore.

In any case, if you still find these answers unsatisfactory, you can always take it up with the prime minister, who has graciously made himself available to the press … as one would expect of, uh, a prime minister. But please, no more questions for the finance minister.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

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