'We did it the way we intended to': Morneau weathers tax storm of his own making

The Liberal government has infuriated small business owners from coast to coast to coast with its recent proposed changes to the tax system, but after weeks of blowback, Finance Minister Bill Morneau isn't shying away.

Finance minister defends rollout of tax-change proposals, says there will be changes

Finance Minister Bill Morneau says he wants to make sure the taxation system is fair. Many small business owners, including farmers, say his proposed changes do nothing of the sort. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Like the late, great Tom Petty, he won't back down.

Or, to be more precise, the federal minister of finance has found a very Canadian middle ground: at once standing firm while conceding he needs to make some changes.

The Liberal government has infuriated small business owners from coast to coast to coast with its recent proposed changes to the tax system, but after weeks of blowback, Bill Morneau isn't shying away. 

He may have been tempted, at times, to close his office door and take a break from being portrayed as a money-grubbing billionaire intent on wrecking the very foundations of Canadian capitalism.

Instead, he's been standing in front of rooms of people yelling at him and submitting to interviews with just about every major news organization in the country. He's made vague promises that the government will backtrack on some of the more contentious proposals. But he's not exactly issuing a mea culpa.

"We did it the way we intended to do it," he told CBC News Thursday. "Which was to go out with proposals and get some feedback."

Pipelines and taxes

5 years ago
Duration 15:38
Peter Armstrong speaks with Finance Minister Bill Morneau

Let's parse that a bit.

The Liberals are proposing to close what they consider loopholes in the tax regulations that govern small businesses. There are three main principals at play here:

  • Passive investments (or taking company money and investing in long-term stocks or bonds instead of the company itself).
  • Capital gains rules around the payment on dividends.
  • Income sprinkling (spreading a company's profits among family members to lower the tax burden. Even in cases where those family members had nothing to do with the company at all).

The dangers of unintended consequences

Morneau says he wants to make sure the system is fair. He says the ability to sprinkle money to a child who has no involvement in a company makes no sense. And in some instances he may have a point. But the proposal failed to consider the case of the family farm, where just about everyone pitches in — and always has.

The government wants to make sure passive investment rules aren't being used to save for an individual's retirement. But the proposal has raised all kinds of questions about the ability of a small business to keep money on hand to invest on even a short-term horizon.

Back to the family farm, the government's plan would make it more expensive to sell the farm to a child than to a third party.

It's those holes in the proposals that have so many people so upset. And in a lot of cases, those unintended consequences have allowed critics to cast doubt on the entire idea of the changes. 

Should Morneau have known better?

Remember, Morneau ran one of the biggest human resources and pension planning firms in the country. He has the entirety of the breadth and knowledge of the federal Finance Department at his disposal. He knows as well as anyone that any changes to taxation are as loaded as they come. And still, those unintended consequences slipped through.

Whenever you change taxes you change the status quo. And there are people that are invested in the status quo.- Finance Minister Bill Morneau

He said he expected some of the backlash. But he also insinuates the criticisms are just people digging in to protect their own self-interest.

"We knew people would not be entirely happy with all the things we put forward," Morneau said. "Because whenever you change taxes you change the status quo. And there are people that are invested in the status quo."

Then, in the same breath, Morneau said he's listened to those who took part in the consultations and that there "need to be things we change." What we don't know is when those changes will be made public (in his defence, the consultation period only ended on Monday).

"I know people want to get to specifics. And we intend on getting to specifics as expeditiously as possible," he said. "That was a real consultation period. We had a large number of submissions that we need to consider."

Some have also raised questions about whether Morneau's former company, Morneau Shepell, stands to benefit from these changes. He severed all ties with the firm founded by his father after he won a seat in the 2015 federal election.

Morneau bristles at the notion his former company will grow its business by consulting those small businesses impacted by the proposed changes.

"It's absurd," he said sharply. "I'm not in touch with them. It's not my firm. It's a publicly traded firm and last I heard it was a tiny part of that organization."

The real issue is what happens now. Morneau is clearly committed to pushing these changes through. So just how much will the Liberals back down? And will the storm of anger over the proposals let up at all? It's as much an economic issue as a political one.

By their own omissions, the Liberals have taken a difficult task and made it that much harder.


Senior Business reporter for CBC News. A former host of On the Money and World Report on CBC Radio, Peter Armstrong has been a foreign correspondent and parliamentary reporter for CBC. Subscribe to Peter's newsletter here: Twitter: @armstrongcbc