Saturday October 21, 2017

Opposition keeps up its attack on Finance Minister Bill Morneau

Finance Minister Bill Morneau

Finance Minister Bill Morneau (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The opposition is showing no sign of letting up on federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau, despite his latest efforts to end the ethics controversy swirling around his personal finances.

In an interview with The House, Morneau again insisted he divulged all of his assets to Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson and diligently heeded her recommendations.

"What we saw this week — over the last few days — is some people saying, 'Maybe that's not enough,'" Morneau said.

On Thursday, the embattled finance minister announced he would divest all of his family's shares in Morneau Shepell — the human resources and pension management company he and his father built over 25 years — while placing his other assets in a blind trust.

"That's much more than [the ethics commissioner] would have expected, but for me, that's okay," Morneau told The House. "I want to get on with what Canadians have asked us to do, which is to continue doing well for them and their families."

Conflict of interest allegations

Morneau has been in the opposition's crosshairs since Monday, when the Globe and Mail reported he had not put his assets in a blind trust. On Tuesday, the ethics commissioner said she had told the finance minister a blind trust wasn't necessary.

But opposition parties accuse Morneau of exploiting a loophole in Canada's conflict of interest legislation, which does not cover assets held indirectly through a holding company — like Morneau's shares in the family business.

Critics say that puts the finance minister in a conflict of interest, given that he's sponsoring Bill C-27, which proposes changes to public pensions that could benefit Morneau Shepell.

'Judgment has not been a key consideration in the finance minister's decision-making.'- Peter Kent, Conservative ethics critic

Morneau rejected those accusations on The House.

"That's a very narrow interpretation," he said. "We're trying to move forward with an additional possibility, so that people can have greater pension security."

Morneau also defended the small business tax changes the Liberals have put forward, even after the government backed down on some of its proposals earlier this week.

"We wanted to make sure that small businesses continue to thrive, but you need to listen to people to get to the right answer," Morneau said. "We're meeting our objectives. We're listening to people to make sure that we get it right."

Questions over Morneau's judgment

Those proposals have been overshadowed by the ethical storm that has engulfed the finance minister this week. Conservative ethics critic Peter Kent says blame for the scandal falls squarely at Morneau's feet.

"When an adult is faced with choices, he or she exercises judgment," Kent said. "And as we learn by the day now — in any number of instances — judgment has not been a key consideration in the finance minister's decision-making."

Peter Kent committee

Environment Minister Peter Kent appears at the Senate natural resources committee on Bill S-15, Expansion and Conservation of Canada's National Parks Act at Parliament Hill on Thursday, April 18, 2013. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

NDP ethics critic Nathan Cullen says the controversy is a clear sign Morneau didn't go far enough to shield himself from reproach. As for the finance minister's decision this week to put his assets in a blind trust and divest all of his family's assets in Morneau Shepell, Cullen says it's too little, too late.

"Clearly, he's taking all these steps, because — both in perception and I would argue reality — for the last couple of years, the finance minister has been in a conflict of interest," Cullen said.

If there's a silver lining in this controversy, Cullen said, it's that it might push the government to close loopholes in the Conflict of Interest Act.

NDP Speakers Powers 20130129

NDP Government House leader Nathan Cullen speaks about expanding the powers of the Speaker of the House of Commons, Tuesday, January 29, 2013 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"Canadians don't care whether it's directly or indirectly — if you're getting benefits from decisions you're making, that's no good," Cullen said, adding that his party will put forward proposals to toughen the legislation.

Both the Conservatives and the NDP have also said they will oppose Bill C-27.

"The bill is dead man walking," Cullen said. "The fact that it's sponsored by a finance minister who directly benefits from the introduction of that bill — it has to be withdrawn."