The Morning Brief – 08.18.20

By Bruce Carson


Prime Minister Trudeau returns from the Lake

The Unmaking of Finance Minister Morneau

Trudeau’s To Do List

If Justin Trudeau was like most of us his first few days back from the lake would be spent catching up on chores around the house, sorting through the mail and the flyers left scattered on the front doorstep, or putting all of that on the dining room table to be dealt with later.

But Mr. Trudeau is not like most of us and he had certain matters to attend to before he got around to putting together a shopping list and planning meals for the week ahead.

Trudeau had at least three matters on his agenda with which to deal; first he has to deal with the functioning of his office so that he is not blindsided on his way into cabinet meetings. Second, he needs to deal with how his cabinet functions as its members seem quite content to sit mute on matters that might displease the prime minister in order to curry favour.

Third, he has to deal once and for all with the issues raised by the WE Charity scandal. He needs to know from his own office as well as others involved what incriminating information is contained in the 5000 pages to be released later this week. He also needs to know what else is going to come out so it can be dealt with promptly; there can be no surprises.

And then he needs to start setting out in detail the plan for Canada’s economic recovery including getting Canadians back to work, childcare and transforming CERB to EI in such a way that those still without jobs, through no fault of their own, will not be left behind.

But before he was able to start on this ‘to do’ list, he had to deal with the future of the only finance minister his government has known, Bill Morneau. In fact if Trudeau can remember back to 2014 and 2015 before the election, he may recall that being able to recruit Morneau to run for the then third place Liberal Party in 2015, provided Trudeau and his team with much needed economic credibility.

But those days are gone now and nothing speaks more loudly to that fact than the carping from the bleachers by both PMO staffers as well as from Morneau’s office. Then, a week ago from PMO, not from the prime minister himself, the vote of confidence in Morneau as finance minister.

This utterance from PMO sounded pretty much like the vote of support a manager of a sports team delivers to a coach, a few days before firing him or her.

Despite the vote of confidence the carping continued with Morneau’s team pushing back, putting their boss in the position of the saviour of the taxpayer’s dollars and the prime minister as the one who wants to spend on any shiny object that comes within his view.

And speaking of new shiny objects, in all of the nonsense of the past couple of weeks it was revealed that Mark Carney, back in Ottawa, was now an informal advisor to the prime minister. This is not the NHL where teams are allowed to carry two goalies, in the federal cabinet; there can be only be one finance minister, accountable to cabinet colleagues and to the House of Commons as well as the people of Canada. A finance minister has a difficult enough job without having someone new whispering in the prime minister’s ear.

So there were a lot of issues to discuss yesterday morning when Morneau and Trudeau met. Topping the list would have been WE Charity and the fact that Morneau repaid expenses incurred by him and his family during a WE sponsored trip to Ecuador just before his appearance before the Finance Committee and without first discussing the matter with the prime minister.

Another prime minister at another time would have summoned Morneau to his office immediately and asked for his resignation. But these times are different, and we are dealing with a prime minister as ethically challenged, if not more so, as the finance minister.

Yesterday’s resignation was probably the result of not one thing, but the accumulation of a number of issues that eventually necessitated the meeting and led to Morneua tendering his resignation.

It is fair game to speculate about the real reasons that brought about the resignation because the reasons given by Morneau last evening make no sense at all.

Morneau provided a good story, it’s just not believable. If we take him at his word, we would believe that just ten months after running in a federal election, winning and being reappointed to the position of finance minister, shutting down the economy, spending billions of taxpayer’s money in order to keep Canadians whole and businesses whole through the worst part of the pandemic, it was time to quit being finance minister of a G7 country to seek another job as Secretary General of the OECD. A job he is competing for and not assured to get. At least it is in Paris, hopefully close to the villa.

So Ottawa being Ottawa, speculation will continue with various versions of the truth eventually surfacing.

The Trudeau government has to put this behind it and needs to set out a framework for action which includes a number of items promised during the election campaign and matters flowing from weaknesses revealed in Canada’s health and social safety net by COVID-19.

The list is long and the government has been largely absent on most of these matters; infrastructure, climate change, gun control, anti-racism, reconciliation, international trade, childcare, long term care for the elderly, internal trade barriers, foreign affairs and Canada’s dealings with China.

Now, as we enter the recovery phase of the pandemic it will be the Trudeau agenda and not the Morneau agenda which will carry the day. And with Ministers McKenna, Wilkinson and Guilbeault charged with coming up with the plan, Canadians can be assured it will be expensive.

Maybe without the ethical difficulties caused by WE Charity, Morneau might have been seen by Trudeau as being able to carry this plan forward but then again, Morneau would have had to explain all of this spending to his friends on Bay St. What we will find out in due course is whether the burden of this spending and accumulated debt will be dealt with now or borne by generations to come.

If the stories are correct Morneau’s cabinet colleagues will not be sorry to see him go, believing the next finance minister will be more amenable to spending on their pet projects. That may very well not be the case, as most ministers of finance see their natural ‘go to’ position as being to say no. This government does not seem to understand or appreciate the challenge function performed by senior public servants, the finance department and the minister of finance.

In the next few hours we will learn who the next finance minister will be but perhaps the more interesting question will be whether the Governor General surfaces to preside over the cabinet shuffle.

To Come

August 19
  • CPI numbers for July to be released
  • Statistics Canada to release a report on the economic impacts of COVID-19 on Canadian businesses
August 21
  • Retail trade numbers for June to be released
August 23
  • Announcement of the name of the new leader of the Conservative Party of Canada