Morneau's counterpunches miss their mark, as Conservatives go for the kill
It may be time for the finance minister to better anticipate next the Opposition's attack
Andrew Scheer walked up to a podium outside the House of Commons on Wednesday and did what has seemed inevitable for months. After the drip, drip, drip of problems for the finance minister, Scheer called for Bill Morneau to go.
"I am officially calling on Bill Morneau to resign as finance minister," Scheer told reporters. " And if he won't step down, it's Justin Trudeau's responsibility to remove Bill Morneau from his post."
It was an escalation that had been building all week as the Opposition launched an attack that amounted to an accusation of insider trading; noting that Morneau dumped $10 million worth of Morneau Shepell stock just a week before tabling a motion to raise taxes on the rich.
The Conservatives say that pending tax hike caused the stock market to tumble and Morneau avoided a loss of about $500,000 by selling early.
Just a day earlier, it was Morneau who was on the offensive when he challenged his tormentor in chief, Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre, to, essentially, take it outside.
"If they want a lesson in how the legal system works, they just need to take those allegations outside the House and I'll give it to them," the finance minister said in a surprise scrum before question period.
Morneau, visibly angry, dared his critics to repeat that key phrase "insider trading" outside of the House of Commons, where they would lose the protection of parliamentary privilege and could therefore be sued.
The prime minister, who has staunchly defended the finance minister, has also dared the Conservatives to step outside the House and expose themselves to litigation.
Morneau rushed to issue his challenge because a speaking engagement in Toronto meant he wouldn't be in the House for Tuesday's question period.
For a while, Morneau looked very much like a boxer who didn't think this sparring partner would hit back. But Poilievre's counterpunch during question period hit its target.
"Would [Morneau] commit that, if I go out and repeat my question in the lobby at this moment, that the finance minister will meet me there and answer the question?" Poilievre asked, as the Conservative benches erupted in applause.
The finance critic then marched theatrically out of the House of Commons to answer the finance minister's dare.
Poilievre carefully avoided the phrase "insider trading" but he did repeat many of his accusations-framed-as-questions outside of the protection of parliamentary privilege.
But the substance of the move was less important than the spectacle.
Morneau seemed to have forgotten what Poilievre and everybody else had learned by junior high: If you dare someone to meet you at the bike racks at 3 o'clock you'd better show up.
But Morneau wasn't there. He had dared Poilievre to take it outside and then left town. He had that speech in Toronto.
Poilievre's stunt trumped Morneau's. By Wednesday, Poilievre and Scheer were a one-two punch of resignation demands.
But the events leading up to Wednesday continued a pattern of Morneau making significant moves with seemingly no sense of how people will respond.
When Morneau tabled his now-toxic package of small business tax reforms this summer, he was outflanked by everyone from farmers and doctors, until he was forced to retreat.
When Morneau was elected, he told the country he expected to put all of his assets into a blind trust. But when he followed the ethics commissioner's advice and went a different route, nobody close to him felt the need to inform him of the public's impression of how he would handle his affairs — an oversight that now seems like political malpractice.
When Morneau was later forced to defend his lack of a blind trust and his use of numbered companies, he responded in question period by listing the numbered companies used by opposition MPs, including Poilievre.
But once again, the wily Poilievre pivoted. As MPs yelled strings of digits at each other, Poilievre confessed that his numbered company was for a rental property. He then asked Morneau to list the assets held in his. Morneau deflected.
Morneau, his colleagues, his staff all insist that he has done nothing wrong. When he announced that he would sell his remaining Morneau Shepell shares and donated the profits to charity, Morneau confessed to being politically naive.
In one-on-one conversations, the minister and his staff seem legitimately hurt that a man with an honourable reputation would be accused of trying to use his office to line his own pocket.
They insist that he is committed to doing the right thing in public life and that his intentions are pure. But in politics, intentions matter far less than perceptions. And this is Morneau's biggest battle right now.
In a recent Toronto Star profile, Morneau's staff compared him to Bruce Wayne — a rich guy devoted to doing good. But Bruce Wayne is also Batman. And Batman wears armour because he knows the other guys hit back.