Bill Morneau tries to divest himself of a controversy: Aaron Wherry

Just before question period, the finance minister summoned reporters to explain that he would be divesting himself of a million shares in his family business. In the House of Commons, the opposition would attempt to divest from Bill Morneau its pound of flesh.

Can a blind trust get the finance minister out of a bind?

Finance Minister Bill Morneau responds to opposition criticism about how he's handled his personal finances. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Just before question period, the finance minister summoned reporters to a small media room in Centre Block's basement to explain that he would be divesting himself of a million shares in his family business.

In the House of Commons, the opposition would attempt to divest from Bill Morneau its pound of flesh.

"The finance minister hid his offshore company in France, until he got caught. And then he reported it," recounted Pierre Poilievre, Morneau's Conservative shadow. "He hid from Canadians his millions of dollars in Morneau Shepell shares in a numbered company in Alberta, despite wrongly telling others it was in a blind trust. Until he got caught. And now he's selling them.

"Why does he expect us to blindly trust that he is not hiding other conflicts of interest in his eight additional numbered companies that he has across the country?"

Morneau stood in his spot and repeated what he had just announced.

"Mr. Speaker, we have a process in this country to ensure that ministers don't have conflicts of interest. I worked with the ethics commissioner to make sure that I disclosed all my assets," he testified. "But I called her this morning and I informed her that I was going to take two additional steps beyond her recommendations."

The Conservatives laughed.

"First, I was going to put my assets in a blind trust," the finance minister explained. "Second, I was going to work with her to ensure that neither myself nor my family have any shareholdings in Morneau Shepell, the company that I used to be with."

When he finished and sat back down, the Liberals around him stood and applauded, breaking from their habit of eschewing pep rally tactics.

As a familial show of support, it was perhaps a nice gesture. Whether there was anything here worth cheering is debatable.

"Too late!" called a voice from the opposition side.

So it seems the price for clumsily proposing tax reform is your stake in the company you and your father built (if, as appears to have occurred here, one controversy led to another).

A remedy without wrongdoing

Morneau's task Thursday was to propose a remedy while maintaining he'd done nothing wrong.

"I, perhaps naively, thought that in Canada following the rules and respecting the recommendations of the ethics commissioner, respecting the recommendations of an officer of Parliament, would be what Canadians would expect, would meet up to their high expectations," he said at his news conference. 

"In fact, what we've seen over the last week is that I need to do more."

This will surely be the last time Morneau underestimates the expectations of the public (or at least the opposition and press gallery).

The question now is whether he has done enough.

Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre had some sharp attacks against the finance minister during question period Thursday. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Dramatically employing finger quotes, Poilievre reminded Morneau he had accused incorporated individuals of using "fancy accounting schemes." The Conservative critic demanded to know how many times the finance minister had recused himself from policy discussions. 

The NDP hit again on the fact Morneau tabled a bill last fall to amend pension laws in a way that might benefit Morneau Shepell, noting that shares in the company had increased after the legislation was tabled.

The previous government seems to have flirted with a similar measure — and C-27, the bill in question, has not been brought forward for debate even once since it was tabled exactly a year ago — but it is hard now to see how the Liberals can move forward with the bill.

Morneau said failing to disclose the corporation in France was an "administrative error." The ethics screen that was established, he told reporters, was "superior" to a blind trust. He described the whole affair as a "distraction."

That much is indisputable, even if it seems to minimize the issue.

Morneau needs something else to talk about

Stolid, bland and well-groomed, Bill Morneau looks the part of a finance minister and he has the resume of a thoughtful businessman, but he is generally wooden and platitudinous in public

On Tuesday, there was a faint glimmer of something like humanity.

"Well, I'll mainly talk about my feelings at home with my wife," he quipped when a reporter asked him how he felt about divesting from the family business, "but since you asked ...

"I spent 25 years building a business with my family. You know, I worked with my father across the hall. We went back and forth across the hall 50 times a day. It was a successful enterprise, and it gave me the opportunity to think about what else I could do with my life," he explained.

"And I decided that I could have the biggest possible impact by going into government. So my conclusion is as much as I'm proud of what I did in the past, that what I really care about now is what I want to do in the future."

Bill Morneau, the guy, is going to be OK, of course. Those million shares could be worth $20 million.

Bill Morneau, the finance minister, has to hope his inquisitors lose interest and nothing else turns up.

Ideally, he would find something else to talk about.

Coincidentally, in the midst of the opposition's badgering on Thursday, the Liberals sent up a backbencher to ask the finance minister when the House might hear a fall economic update.

Morneau stood and said it will come next Tuesday.

That might at least give the Conservatives and New Democrats something different to lament.

Bill Morneau in the hot seat, and looking back on 2 years of Trudeau and the Liberal Party | At Issue

5 years ago
Duration 14:20
Finance Minister Bill Morneau is in the hot seat over his personal assets. And what should we make of Trudeau and the Liberal Party after two years in office? Our At Issue panel has some answers.


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