Morneau and Trudeau sell their budget on and off Parliament Hill

With the government's budget tabled on Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau set about trying to sell the public on its merits.

Commons sketch | Finance minister gets his turn at fending off critics of his 1st budget

Finance Minister Bill Morneau speaks during question period in Ottawa on Thursday, March 24, 2016. (The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld)

"Mr. Speaker," the finance minister began his first response of the morning, "we are very proud of the budget we put forward for Canadians."

The Conservatives chuckled and grumbled.

"Mr. Speaker," Bill Morneau said two questions later, "I want to thank the member for her question because it gives me an opportunity again to say how proud we are of our budget."

The Conservatives laughed.

Pride was apparently the order of the day: the indigenous affairs minister, the health minister, the minister for social development and the employment minister all following in declaring themselves proud of the budget their government had tabled less than 48 hours earlier.

Pride is preferable to abject shame and regret, of course. But it is also just about the least one could hope for from a government tabling its fiscal plan for the coming year.

Which is not to say that Morneau does not have reason to be proud.

Rising above historical lows

The country's first finance minister lasted just four months after Confederation, departing before he could even table a budget. John Crosbie's only budget ended Joe Clark's brief time as prime minister. Michael Wilson had his 1989 budget leaked, while Marc Lalonde inadvertently leaked his own budget in 1983.

Morneau would seem so far to have at least risen above those low points. Perhaps the worst that can be said of his first effort is that it might lead to something terrible eventually. Until then, there is hope — and commitments to "help" and "invest."

And, across the aisle, condemnation.

"Mr. Speaker, this budget is a betrayal of the middle class," Rona Ambrose ventured at the start of question period this morning. "Families are being asked to return the universal child care cheques," she continued, "moms and dads are no longer able to claim a tax credit for putting their kids in soccer or dance class, and the tax credit for textbooks or education is gone."

The Conservatives are no doubt saddened to see their boutique inventions written out of the tax code. But to take a stand on the utility of the universal child care benefit and the children's fitness tax credit — the former folded into the new tax-free income-dependent Canada child benefit, the latter to be phased out over the next two years — is to take it easy on the government.

"We are particularly proud that we have been able to live up to our promises to middle-class Canadians," Morneau responded of the government's tax cut and new child benefit. "They will have, on average, $2,300 more per year, including the measures that were taken for families mentioned by the member opposite."

Opposition Leader Rona Ambrose debates Finance Minister Bill Morneau in the first Question Period since he delivered his budget 1:17

Affable, but stilted

Morneau is not a scintillating performer. A bit stilted in public, he can sound precisely like a man who used to lead a large human resources firm and is now trying to figure out how to be the finance minister of a G7 nation. He still has a tendency to say his own stage directions aloud ("I want to take us back," he told reporters on budget day, helpfully annotating his attempt at redirection). 

He can sound like he enjoys counting beans — though perhaps that might be reassuring.

But he has at least been willing, making the media rounds these last few days. And on that front he has been joined by the prime minister, Justin Trudeau, who turned up on morning shows Wednesday before taking the show to Toronto today.

Posing with small children this morning and speaking of his conversations with the Rose family, Trudeau boasted of the Canada child benefit. The Liberals had listened to the concerns of Canadian families, he said, and now they had delivered.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with members of the Rose family during a press conference on the budget with families in Toronto Thursday. (Peter Power/Canadian Press)

Morneau was left to carry the government side in question period. "Mr. Speaker, Canadians asked us to do two things in the last election," he explained. "They asked us to help the middle class, and they asked us to grow the economy."

Canadians, you will understand, were not deeply tied to a deficit of a certain size.

Presented to his opposition for the first time since tabling his budget, Morneau took 13 questions and was basically sturdy. Looking directly at the Speaker and ignoring the catcalls, Morneau conveyed his assurances without reading from a script and without saying anything particularly ridiculous.

He was not spectacular, but he survived. (And on account of the House schedule he won't face the House again until April 11 at the earliest.)

The case against the budget

He benefits, for now, from the limited complaints of his opposition.

The Conservatives would like to see the small-business tax rate reduced another point and a half to nine per cent. The New Democrats would like to see stock options taxed. The Conservatives are aggrieved that the government would, in the words of Jason Kenney, "so utterly violate" its "fundamental commitment" to deficits of no more than $10 billion and a balanced budget in 2019. There are various calls for more for this and fewer taxes on that.

Questions of credibility might yet drag at this government — particularly if straying from campaign commitments becomes a habit and particularly when it comes time to make new campaign commitments — but there is no comprehensive case being made against the government's budget. Whatever the complaints about the size of the budgetary deficit, there are no specific calls to not pursue the specific initiatives the government is funding.

The case against the budget is mostly a theoretical one for now, based on either an absolute position on the error of deficit spending or a warning about what might come to pass as a result of those deficits.

So much then depends on the simple fact of economic growth and whether it is felt occurring between now and 2019.

Morneau might hope that three years from now the worst that can be said of him is that he's a bit stiff and he eliminated the children's fitness tax credit and ran four years of deficits.

Carol Anne Hilton discusses her involvement involvement in the council advising Finance Minister Bill Morneau on economic growth 8:19

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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