Trudeau celebrates his second anniversary on the defensive: Aaron Wherry
The prime minister insists he remains 'focused on what matters to Canadians'
As Justin Trudeau stood on a riser in a Montreal hotel ballroom on the night of Oct. 19, 2015, basking in the glow of victory, there was nothing to be said about the taxation of passive investment income, no questions about Bill Morneau's stock portfolio or a villa in France.
"Sunny ways, my friends," the new prime minister said. "Sunny ways."
One day short of two years later, Trudeau sat in the House of Commons yesterday and listened as the leader of the Opposition lamented for the state of things.
"Another day," said Andrew Scheer, "another scandal for the finance minister."
Such is political life, of course. No Opposition leader goes four years without finding something to complain about. No government goes a full term without finding trouble. In between the graceful speeches of each election night, it is mostly yelling and screaming.
The question in October 2017 is whether the Liberals are getting into the sort of trouble that could prevent Trudeau from accepting victory again in 2019.
What matters to Canadians?
The opposition's concern for the finance minister is multi-faceted.
While he disclosed his ownership of a villa in France to the ethics commissioner, he forgot to disclose the company through which he owns that villa. While he does not appear to be in violation of ethics laws, he still owns and controls shares in Morneau Shepell, a company that administers benefits and pension plans.
The latter fact is being used to question whether the finance minister unethically tabled a bill that deals with certain pension allowances.
And all of which has come to light in the wake of clumsily proposed and poorly received suggestions for tax reform.
On Wednesday, Trudeau sat and listened impassively as Scheer and a succession of opposition MPs charged the finance minister with hypocrisy and conflict of interest. Most pointedly, Morneau was accused of exploiting a "loophole" in the ethics code, echoing the kind of problem the finance minister's tax reforms were meant to address.
With open palms, Trudeau insisted his finance minister had followed the conflict of interest rules and the ethics commissioner's advice. The opposition jeered and moaned. The prime minister slipped and referred to the "conflict of ethics" commissioner and the opposition howled in mockery.
In keeping with his new practice on Wednesdays, Trudeau took every question. And, in keeping with their desire for a different tone, the Liberals around him refrained from clapping and cheering.
But, eventually, Trudeau's passivity began to give way.
Will the prime minister just admit that his minister of finance has violated the Conflict of Interest Act, or is he just too busy working hard for the French villa owners, or those who are working hard to become French villa owners?- NDP MP Jenny Kwan
He accused the other parties of "personal attacks" and "wild accusations" and "petty politics" and "partisan politics" and "gutter politics."
"Shame on them," he finally said of the opposition, overreaching.
This he contrasted with a government that remains "focused on what matters to Canadians" — things like cutting taxes, helping families, building roads and reducing unemployment.
Mocking the finance minister
Of course, the propriety of the finance minister also ultimately matters to Canadians. Even if the average voter doesn't go to bed each night worrying about the Conflict of Interest Act.
The government surely would have been better off if Bill Morneau had set up a blind trust (as Trudeau himself did several years ago). Just as, to use an earlier affair, the prime minister would have been better off spending his Christmas vacation somewhere other than the Aga Khan's island.
Perhaps in exchange for letting the Trudeau family crash at that villa in France, the prime minister could introduce Morneau to his financial adviser.
Regardless, Trudeau will be better off if he can avoid losing his finance minister. And if there are no further revelations about the minister's finances, the government might be able to wait out the opposition's outrage (there will surely be something new to yell about soon enough), though the government's pension legislation might now be irreparably tainted.
In the meantime, Morneau's absence from the House is being noted and his wealth is being loudly mocked.
"Will the prime minister just admit that his minister of finance has violated the Conflict of Interest Act," asked NDP MP Jenny Kwan, "or is he just too busy working hard for the French villa owners, or those who are working hard to become French villa owners?"
That sort of wordplay stings.
And that sort of privilege can breed contempt.
Is better still possible?
Amid the indignation on Wednesday, Trudeau seemed to want to project confidence. But he might not want to sit too comfortably.
The greater danger is if this whole affair further exposes some deeper problem, be it carelessness, arrogance, a government that is more style than substance, or even just the impression thereof.
It has been two years of such stuff.
There were the questionable fundraisers, questionable expenses and the remarkable feat of fouling up the appointment of an official languages commissioner. The government made a mess of electoral reform and stumbled into a brawl over parliamentary reform.
All the while, there have been questions about this government's ability, even willingness, to simply get things done.
This is a government that prides itself on "getting the big things right" and perhaps none of the controversies to date qualify as "big" things. Meanwhile, truly big things might be accomplished in the next two years: a pipeline or two, major infrastructure projects, measurable progress toward improving the welfare and independence of Indigenous communities.
But big failures might also come. And some big promises might not be fulfilled.
When the opposition is yelling about those things, the government might wish it had done better these past two years.
As the prime minister was fond of saying in 2015, "better is always possible."
His government might now be measured by whether it does any better in the next two years, or whether things only get worse.