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book review
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Bill Morneau, who served as Minister of Finance, has written a book criticizing a Prime Minister still in office.Kellyann Petry/The Globe and Mail

  • Title: Where To From Here: A Path to Canadian Prosperity
  • Author: Bill Morneau (with John Lawrence Reynolds)
  • Genre: Non-fiction
  • Publisher: ECW Press
  • Pages: 328

Bill Morneau got into politics because he wanted to improve Canada’s dismal economic productivity within an environmentally responsible and socially progressive framework. He got out because he lost respect for Justin Trudeau.

To then write a book about this is remarkable.

Former cabinet ministers have occasionally written books critical of the prime minister they served under, such as Donald Fleming about John Diefenbaker; Walter Gordon and Judy LaMarsh about Lester Pearson; Paul Martin about Jean Chrétien.

But these writers waited until the leader was out of office before publishing their tell-alls. Morneau, like former attorney-general and justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, has written a book criticizing a Prime Minister still in office. Whatever his other qualities, Trudeau deeply antagonized some people who worked with him.

In Where To From Here: A Path to Canadian Prosperity, Morneau offers an insider’s account of the first five years of the Trudeau government, one that includes a highly unflattering account of a Prime Minister who never really learned how to lead. He also offers his prescription for repairing Canada’s ailing economic performance and its deteriorating health care system. Policy wonks and political gossips alike will want it on their shelves.

Morneau decided to enter politics, after a highly successful career in business and years of philanthropic work, because “Canada’s economic growth had been stalled for two decades or more, and it needed to be resuscitated.” The country’s productivity is near the bottom of the barrel within the OECD. “In my mind, it was a fundamental problem needing immediate attention.”

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Where To from Here: A Path to Canadian Prosperity by Bill Morneau.Handout

Justin Trudeau’s charismatic appeal to an electorate impatient after a decade of increasingly stale Conservative government under Stephen Harper vaulted the Liberal Party from third to first place in the 2015 federal election, and vaulted Morneau from neophyte candidate into the second-most powerful election position in the federal government: minister of finance.

After five years in office, Morneau could point with pride to his role in several major accomplishments: an enhanced Canada Pension Plan, the Canada Child Benefit and a national plan for pricing carbon. And he was part of a team that succeeding in preventing rogue then-U.S. president Donald Trump from scuttling the North American free trade accord; the Canadians, Americans and Mexicans negotiated a similar but differently named agreement.

But the minister became increasingly frustrated with the government’s reluctance to put economic competitiveness at the centre of its governing agenda, and increasingly impatient with the short leash the Prime Minister’s Office kept on him and other cabinet ministers.

He shouldn’t have been surprised about the leash. Power in Ottawa has been coalescing within the Prime Minister’s Office for decades, and Trudeau’s cabinet contained a number of ministers, such as Morneau and Wilson-Raybould, who needed careful watching because they were rookies.

The Finance Department performs a challenge function, pushing back against spending initiatives to preserve fiscal integrity. Chrétien, who had also been a finance minister, warned Morneau: “The more independent you are, the more effective you will be. But the more independent you are, the more you will be at risk.” Sooner than most finance ministers, he was at risk.

Morneau preferred a managerial approach to solving problems: collaborating with colleagues to set goals and craft strategies to meet them. But he found the Prime Minister to be aloof and distant. Remarkably, he says one of the very few times the two talked one-on-one was on Aug. 17, 2020, the day Morneau resigned from cabinet.

Also, the Prime Minister didn’t always have his finance minister’s back. When Morneau turned down worthwhile but unaffordable proposals from ministerial colleagues, they would go around him to the PMO. “‘Let’s give them something to keep them happy’ … became common as time passed,” Morneau wrote.

Then there the departure of Gerald Butts, who resigned as personal secretary to the PM – ”fell on this sword,” is how Morneau puts it – during the furor over the SNC-Lavalin affair.

Butts had the most comprehensive understanding of the government’s agenda, and how it could be implemented, says Morneau. When Butts left, never to be fully replaced, the government lost direction, the former finance minister believes.

But the biggest problem for Morneau was a failure of leadership on the part of the Prime Minister. “I came to realize that while his performance skills were superb, his management and interpersonal communication abilities were sorely lacking,” Morneau concluded.

It all culminated during the COVID-19 crisis in a shocking betrayal, as he describes it, of the finance minister by the Prime Minister. In those first frantic days, Morneau writes, he and department officials scrambled to come up with an income substitution plan that would help laid-off workers without jeopardizing federal finances. But the PMO rejected their advice, substituting instead a figure of $500 a week for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) because the numbers “sounded good.”

“This became a daily routine,” he writes. Finance would prepare estimates for a new program, make recommendations, deliver the department’s proposal to the Prime Minister’s Office “and then discover that the decision announced by them to the public was framed according to the impact the PMO believed it would make on the daily news cycle.”

Morneau does not descend into fly-on-the-wall scenes of drama and intrigue. The tone of the book is one of respectful disagreement, the prose straightforward and workmanlike.

Where To From Here also provides a detailed analysis and recommendations for addressing Canada’s productivity problem. (Morneau sees a new federal productivity commission as a big part of the solution.) He also looks at Canada’s declining health care system and the challenges of combatting global warming.

But most readers will be attracted to the story about the Trudeau government’s first five years, from someone who was at the table, and who walked away from that table because he and the Prime Minister simply couldn’t get along.

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