Changes to taxes 1st priority as Bill Morneau takes finance portfolio

One of the first priorities for Canada's new finance minister Bill Morneau will be to revise Canadian tax law to reduce taxes on the middle class and raise them on Canada's wealthiest taxpayers.

Morneau was former chair of C.D. Howe Institute and head of human resources firm Morneau Shepell

Liberal MP for Toronto Centre Bill Morneau, who has been advising Justin Trudeau on economic policy since the beginning of the year, was named finance minister. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

One of the first priorities for Bill Morneau, Canada's new finance minister, will be to revise Canadian tax law to reduce taxes on the middle class and raise them on the wealthiest taxpayers.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has asked that a new tax law be ready by Jan. 1.

The Liberal Party's election campaign also promised a slew of personal income tax changes, including ending income splitting for families with children under 18 and revamping the limits on Tax-Free Savings Accounts, which would need to be drafted quickly to apply in 2016.

Trudeau's choice for the job of enacting those changes is Toronto Centre MP Morneau, the former head of a human resources company and one of Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne's advisers on the Ontario Pension Plan.

"We campaigned on the real challenges facing middle-class Canadians. We went around the country telling people that we wanted to deal with the fact that middle-class people and families have financial challenges," Morneau said.

"What is important is to make sure the tax system works," he said in an interview on CBC News Network's Power & Politics.

The finance post usually goes to a political veteran, but Trudeau opted instead for a personal adviser who also has Bay Street savvy.

Morneau had no timeline for the task ahead of him. He said he wanted to talk to his deputies before revealing anything about the timing of a fiscal update or changes to tax laws.

Morneau is new to political office, one of 54 Liberals to win a seat in the Greater Toronto Area in last month's federal election. But he rejects the idea that he is a rookie, pointing to his years of business experience.

Morneau said Canadians want to know that the finance minister has "the history, experience and judgment to make decisions," he said. 

"I'm looking forward to making a difference and seeing Canada do well."

A married father of four, Morneau stepped down as executive chair of Morneau Shepell, a large Canadian human resources services company that manages many private-sector pensions, after winning his riding.

He stepped away from his position as chair of the C.D. Howe Institute, an economic think-tank, when he decided earlier this year to run in the federal election.

He has been an economic adviser to Trudeau's Liberals since February. Despite being a multi-millionaire, he has publicly expressed an interest in income equality, saying Canada cannot thrive unless all Canadians are doing well.

"I'm concerned that we make sure that the next generation of Canadians feels they had the capacity to get ahead," Morneau told CBC News.

"Income inequality is something that's not good for anyone...  If there is continuing inequality, it does take away hope for those who aren't doing as well."

Pension adviser

As finance minister, he will be working with the provinces in any reform of the Canada Pension Plan, one of the Liberal promises. Ontario's plan was designed to be a supplement to the CPP amid concern the plan no longer provides adequate benefits.

Morneau said pensions are an important issue and he will consult with the provinces and others on the issue.

"We need to address this because we're seeing Canadians aren't saving enough for their retirement, particularly Canadians in the $50,000 to $100,000 income bracket," he said. 

But his immediate job will be a reassessment of Canada's economic and financial health as the new government begins its mandate. The economy is not doing as well as was projected in the last Conservative budget in April and that may play havoc with both federal finances and economic planning.

Morneau said he did not yet know when that review would happen.

Low oil prices have slowed Canadian growth and the plunge in commodities prices is having ripple effects across the economy. The Liberals have pledged a new round of infrastructure spending to foster growth and provide jobs.

Morneau will be in charge of Ottawa's books as that spending ramps up and there will be pressure on him to justify any expansion of the federal deficit.

But the finance minister said that he did not regard that promise as a "licence to spend."

"We need to be prudent in managing the resources the Canadian government has," he said.

Morneau, 53, has a master's degree from the London School of Economics and a master's degree in business administration.

According to his election website, Morneau has been chair of boards at St. Michael's Hospital and youth shelter Covenant House and serves on the board of the Canadian Merit Scholarship Foundation and The Learning Partnership.

He also founded a special school for Somali and Sudanese youth in an African refugee camp.


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