With economic statement, Morneau tries to get past questions of his own privilege
'I think the finance minister should choose his words with a little more caution,' says NDP finance critic
Tuesday's economic statement was a chance for the finance minister to talk about the greater good. But his own situation was not far from everyone's thoughts.
A muttered reference to a villa in France could be heard as the finance minister told the House of Commons a story about a little girl in his riding who hoped her family members would be able to find affordable housing.
A while later, when Bill Morneau said "We're investing in ourselves" by way of touting his government's public spending, a voice called out, "I'll bet you are!"
In recalling the government's reforms of the child-benefit system, the finance minister remarked that "families like mine stopped receiving benefit cheques," and the Conservatives and New Democrats laughed uproariously.
There was laughter again when Morneau quoted the prime minister as recently saying that Canada is "a country where we celebrate our collective contributions rather than protect the interests of a privileged few."
For the foreseeable future, opposition MPs will be primed to spot and mock such irony in the finance minister's words and deeds.
The smell of money
It has not been a great time for the finance minister.
His proposed tax reforms, put forward for discussion in July, were met with loud and strenuous objection. That yelling has subsided, but in the meantime the opposition has found new things to shout about: Morneau's omission from his ethics disclosure of a corporation in France that controls his villa, and the revelation that the finance minister, until recently, still controlled shares in the pension and benefits company he previously directed.
The former looks clumsy; the latter raises concerns about conflict of interest (particularly in regard to pension legislation that Morneau tabled in 2016). Both carry the smell of money.
On Tuesday, the money in question was at least for the benefit of others.
Indeed, Morneau might've seemed almost to lean in to the government's stated commitment to fairness.
After making the case that the past two years have been about public investments and positive economic results, Morneau announced increases to the Canada child benefit and the working income tax benefit, both of which benefit those with lower incomes.
As well, he reminded, the government is now newly recommitted to cutting the tax rate for small businesses.
"If the last few months have taught me anything, it's the strength and resilience of entrepreneurs and small business owners across the country," he said.
Rarely has anyone so gracefully acknowledged being yelled at.
Though the extent of the new measures don't quite justify the allusion, Morneau referred to Tuesday's statement as "doubling down" on the government's plan: It has worked, so here is more of it. If you liked what the party had to say in 2015, you will presumably be OK with this.
The Liberals in attendance seemed happy, standing to applaud the finance minister on a half dozen occasions.
It is a wager insofar as the finance minister is spending money, running a deficit and betting it works out for the best, politically, fiscally and economically. But, at least in the short term, that might not carry too much risk.
Free political advice for the finance minister
When Morneau met with reporters before his speech, there were numerous questions about that deficit. But at least there weren't any questions about numbered companies. (There was no bristling in this news conference.) And the Liberals might be happy to fight the next election on the question of whether public spending needs to be quickly curtailed.
The question for now is whether Morneau can still be the right messenger for that Liberal argument.
"Mr. Speaker, moments ago, the finance minister had the audacity to say that families like his are not getting any benefit cheques in Canada," Pierre Poilievre said when Morneau had finished, the Conservative finance critic barely concealing a smile. "This from the finance minister who only days ago we learned has been taking $65,000 dividend cheques from a company that he regulates."
Poilievre noted the government was proposing nothing that would impact the wealth of the finance minister or prime minister (it's unclear if the Conservative shadow minister actually wants to see some policy change in that regard).
But that wealth will now be Morneau's greatest weakness if his policies ever seem out of touch with those in lower income brackets.
Speaking after Poilievre, the NDP's finance critic, Alexandre Boulerice, offered some free communications advice.
"I just want to quote the finance minister from his speech a few minutes ago. He said we will continue to invest in ourselves," Boulerice reviewed.
"I think the finance minister should choose his words with a little more caution, because if he's desperately trying to change the channel from the scandal he's in, if he continues to say stuff like that, people will just remember that maybe he benefit himself from some legislation he personally tabled in this House of Commons."
Boulerice seemed almost genuinely concerned.