Analysis

Liberals turn to pasta to move past 3 months of fuss and fury over tax fairness

Perhaps — three months after launching their consultation on "tax fairness" — the Liberals have now landed on a set of policy proposals that can be safely implemented.

One day, over a plate of pasta alla vodka, the finance minister might laugh about this kerfuffle

Finance Minister Bill Morneau speaks to members of the media as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks on at a press conference on tax reforms in Stouffville, Ont., on Monday. When reporters asked questions to Morneau, Trudeau said, 'I'll take them.' (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

When the prepared statements were finished and the floor was opened for questions, the first reporter in line wanted to question Bill Morneau, about not just the government's tax changes, but also whether the finance minister's personal wealth was being ethically managed.

But Justin Trudeau, standing at the lectern, declined to give way and let his minister respond.

"I'll take them," the prime minister said of the questions.

Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre, one of Morneau's most enthusiastic tormentors, seized the moment.

"Trudeau bans Morneau from answering questions at today's Finance press conference," he tweeted. "Good move."

And so this kerfuffle has gone.

What was supposedly a specific matter about tax policy has led opposition MPs and press gallery reporters to a series of questions about the finance minister and his own financial situation: about the tax treatment of the company he used to lead, about whether that company stands to benefit from his proposed changes, about whether he properly disclosed his ownership of a villa in France and about how his personal finances have been managed since he became a minister of the Crown.

Perhaps — while the Liberals loudly touted a tax cut for small business on Monday, details of the new proposals were scant — they have landed on a set of policies that can be safely implemented.

But they still might wonder whether their finance minister, and thus the government, has suffered lasting damage.

Despite not being in Question Period himself, Finance Minister Bill Morneau's villa in France was the topic de jour. 1:18

Pasta and politics

It was to a family-owned Italian eatery — that great barometer of public policy and ethics —  that Morneau and Trudeau went on Monday, sitting down with the proprietors over plates of bread, meats and cheeses, and making awkward small talk about entrepreneurship while the cameras recorded the heartening scene.

Morneau asked what was the best recipe on the menu. One of his hosts suggested all the pasta dishes were quite good, but another voice at the table seemed to single out the pasta alla vodka.

A while later, the finance minister and prime minister proceeded to the formal portion of the announcement. Above them was a banner reading, "Support For Small Business." On a sign affixed to the lectern were the same words. And on an easel to the right was perched a placard touting, "Cutting Taxes For Small Business."

Paeans to the small-business owner were then offered by a local Liberal MP, the prime minister and the minister of state for small business. 

This is perhaps not exactly what Bill Morneau had in mind when he decided he wanted to serve his country.

But this is the sort of thing one does when one wants to start burying three months of fuss and fury about one's proposed tax reforms.

MPs - Joel Lightbound (Liberal), Pierre Poilievre (Conservative), and Nathan Cullen (NDP) discuss 10:04

'I listened intently'

"As you know, I spent the last few weeks travelling the country, listening to people," Morneau said on Monday. "And I listened intently. Because it really matters. It matters to me and it matters to the country that we get things right."

So, in a way, the system worked. The government put forward a set of proposals and asked for feedback. In response, people yelled at the finance minister. And, in response to that yelling, the government is going to adjust.

But, in various other ways, things seemed to go poorly. For one, there was a lot of yelling. For another, a Liberal backbencher decided he was better off voting with the opposition on a motion that criticized the government's approach.

If the new proposals are implemented without inflicting widespread hardship, this might still be a distant memory by the 2019 election. One day, over a plate of pasta alla vodka, Bill Morneau might look back at this and laugh.

But the government's critics are now primed to jump on any hint of an untoward tax change. Reacting to the government's announcement on Monday, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer warned darkly of tax increases that might yet be sprung sometime after 2019 if the Liberals are allowed to continue governing.

Meanwhile, Morneau is being framed as a man of privilege. And even if none of the recent questions about his financial situation ever amount to a finding of significant wrongdoing, his critics will be only too happy to reference his villa in France whenever they want to suggest he is not in touch with the realities of the common man.

Minister of Small Business and Tourism Bardish Chagger sits down with Chris Hall to discuss 9:17

Measuring Morneau

When Morneau was introduced as a member of Trudeau's team in February 2014, he and his resume were said to bolster Trudeau's credibility.

Monday felt like Trudeau, the more effusive communicator, carrying Morneau's policy.

The process of getting to that policy — starting with a set of proposals that invited dire predictions — was at least clumsy. And a cabinet minister is entitled to initiate only so many kerfuffles

Disliking politics?

Amid the chiding and accusations, columnists have also speculated about whether Morneau might dislike politics enough to walk away at the next election.

The finance minister has succeeded at negotiating with the provinces, but he is not naturally at ease in the public arena. He seems friendly, but wooden. It is hard to imagine him ever raising his voice. Like many members of this cabinet (including the prime minister), he prefers to speak generally about principles and values, rather than fight over specifics. 

But, from start to finish, this fight was taken to the government.

On Monday, Morneau grasped at a higher measure.

"It's important right now to have a little reminder," he ventured. "The plan that we've put in place for Canadians, it's working. … Over the last year, we've had the highest growth that we've seen in a decade."

As a man who has had a life outside politics, Morneau probably knows it's too simple to credit a finance minister with the performance of the national economy (as much as his predecessors have tried and as much as they were judged by same). 

But he now might be that much more vulnerable if he's ever unable to brag about the last GDP numbers.

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail.

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