Politics·Analysis

Question for wounded Trudeau is whether vulnerable Morneau is the right choice to chart post-pandemic future

It's not too early to assess Bill Morneau's time as finance minister — an era that has been as eventful as it has been ungraceful. But, for Trudeau, the question is whether the finance minister of the last five years is the right finance minister for the next, pivotal year.

Morneau has twice turned out to be oblivious to his own vulnerabilities

Bill Morneau is said to be valued as an important voice for fiscal discipline in a government not inclined toward restraint, but recent damage to the finance minister's credibility might be difficult to overcome. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Monday was a tough day for Bill Morneau and a good day for those who want to speculate about whether Bill Morneau will continue to be the finance minister for much longer.

First came word that Mark Carney, the highly regarded and dapper former governor of the Bank of Canada, has been advising Justin Trudeau as the Liberal government turns its attention to rebuilding the economy. Then came a report from the Globe and Mail that alleged "clashes" between Trudeau and Morneau and suggested Carney was one of several candidates to replace him as finance minister.

Trudeau offered his full support for Morneau on Tuesday, but that is unlikely to discourage rumours.

Speculating about a cabinet shuffle is rarely a good use of anyone's time — the number of people who are directly aware of what the prime minister is thinking about his cabinet on any given day is usually in the single digits. 

It's not too early to assess Morneau's time as finance minister — an era that has been as eventful and perhaps even important as it has been ungraceful. But, for Trudeau, the question is whether the finance minister of the last five years is the right finance minister for the next, pivotal year.

Questions about Morneau's future had already been revived before Carney entered the scene. As the Canada student service grant crumbled under the weight of the WE affair, some of the wreckage fell on the finance minister's head and, for the second time, Morneau found himself having to explain why he hadn't managed his personal affairs in an unimpeachable fashion — reminding everyone, in the process, that he is a very wealthy man.

A similar sequence played out three years ago when Morneau made a push for tax reform. The first problem in that case was the government's slow and insufficient response to the concerted campaign against the finance department's proposals. Then reporters started looking into Morneau's own financial assets.

Word that Mark Carney, the former governor of the Bank of Canada, has been advising Justin Trudeau on rebuilding the economy fuelled speculation about Morneau's future. (Reuters)

It turned out he had failed to disclose a numbered company he owned — a company that owned a villa in France, though he had disclosed the villa. Then it was discovered he hadn't put his investment holdings in a blind trust. On that issue, Morneau was ultimately found to have not breached the Conflict of Interest Act, but by then he had already divested himself of his family's business in an attempt to end questions about his ethical standing.

Whatever else might be said of the finance minister, he has now twice turned out to be oblivious to his own vulnerabilities (though the same could be said of his boss).

Though he has become more comfortable in the public square, Morneau is not a naturally gifted or exciting politician. That's not a moral failing. But it can be a problem for someone who is working in politics.

In the first four years, his biggest moments came in private settings. In June 2016, less than a year into the job, Morneau got the provinces to agree to expand the Canada Pension Plan. A year later, he negotiated new health accords with the provincial governments. In 2018, he led the government team that negotiated the purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline.

Opinions may differ on whether any or all of those deals were particularly good or bad, but they were assuredly not insignificant. 

Morneau is said to be valued internally and an important voice for fiscal restraint. He is one of the few Liberals with significant experience in business. For good or otherwise, his budgets have also produced a handful of potential legacy items — from gender-based analysis to "superclusters" to the Canada Infrastructure Bank.

For Justin Trudeau, the question is whether the finance minister of the last five years is the right finance minister for the next, pivotal year. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Shifting goal posts

For all the grief directed at Morneau for the larger-than-promised deficits that the Liberal government ran between 2015 and 2019, it's also possible he has presided over a significant shifting of the goal posts on fiscal policy. In late July, the editorial board of the Globe and Mail declared that, "austerity wasn't the right path before the pandemic, and it can't be the road chosen after it."

The unprecedented spending that Morneau oversaw this spring will be studied by historians and economists for decades to come. Though the marks from impartial observers have generally been favourable, there have been complaints. Morneau himself has acknowledged that the commercial rent assistance program could have been better designed. A more generous wage subsidy, launched earlier, might have also prevented some of the early job losses.

That wage subsidy was reportedly one of several points of dispute between Morneau and Trudeau — with the Globe's sources casting Trudeau in a better light. One counterargument goes that debates between prime minister and finance minister are natural and healthy. Trudeau and Morneau apparently worked well enough together through the first four years, but a real clash of styles now could bode ill.

Difficult decisions

The recent damage to Morneau's credibility might be difficult to overcome — it's possible the ethics commissioner will come back this fall with a ruling that Morneau violated ethics rules on at least one count. But the act of replacing one's finance minister in the midst of an economic crisis carries some risk too.

Either way, the burden on the finance minister over the next year could be significant, both internally and externally. The task of transitioning away from emergency supports and reforming employment insurance to handle a larger number of recipients will be fraught with the potential for trouble. Going into next year's budget there will be difficult decisions to make about how new spending is directed and then those choices will have to be defended — as hard as 2020 has been, the task of beginning to shape the post-2020 world might be even more profound.

It's very easy to speculate that someone other than Morneau might be better equipped to deal with that.

Liberals might be excited by Carney's resume and star power, but there were Liberals who were excited about Michael Ignatieff too. Chrystia Freeland might seem like a leading candidate, but she also seems to be serving the prime minister well as his official deputy. Treasury Board president Jean-Yves Duclos, a former economist, might be a policy wonk's dream — and he has increasingly come to the fore as a spokesman for the government — but it might be hard to imagine him interacting with Bay Street. 

It's fun to guess. But beyond the speculation and gossip, a wounded prime minister is looking to seize a unique moment and set a new agenda over the next year. His choice of finance minister will be no small part of that.

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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