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Finance Minister Bill Morneau could be just what Parliament needs

While Bill Morneau may be a political rookie, the new MP is a business titan. By naming him Finance Minister, the Liberal government is making a statement that their stimulus spending will be temporary rather than a longer-term expansion of the state.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

It was 8 o'clock on Thursday morning – the beginning of his first full day as a member of cabinet – and Bill Morneau was making a beeline for the coffeemaker.

Canada's new finance minister usually drinks two or three cups a day – but seven or eight when he hasn't slept, he said, fiddling with a basket of plastic espresso cartridges in the lobby of his Ottawa hotel.

If Mr. Morneau's caffeine intake is immoderate, it appears to be the only immoderate thing about him. Strikingly for the second most important member of a youthful new government swept to power on an image of freshness and promises of dramatic spending, Mr. Morneau is preternaturally even-keeled, even staid.

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If Justin Trudeau is often ebullient when he speaks, Mr. Morneau is measured. Where the Prime Minister relishes bold rhetorical strokes, his Finance Minister uses mild, careful language and especially likes the word "prudent." In Mr. Morneau's mouth, the Liberal slogan "Real Change" gets sanded down to a bland actuarial disclaimer.

"We're going to need to make sure that we're cautious about any proposed changes," he said Thursday, in his most extensive interview since being sworn in.

That emphasis on caution isn't the only way Mr. Morneau seems an odd fit for the Liberal cabinet. He is extremely wealthy and, for a Prime Minister who rode to power on a pledge to help the middle class, it may seem peculiar to place a member of the 1 per cent – indeed, of the 0.1 per cent – in charge of government finances. And Mr. Morneau's fiscal hawkishness seems to clash with a party promising to run large deficits over the course of its first mandate. But his installation at Finance is also a confirmation – encouraging to conservatives, sobering to the left – that the Liberals intend their spending binge as a one-time stimulus for the economy, rather than a longer-term expansion of the state.

The appointment of the former Bay Street chieftain and think-tank leader has also raised eyebrows because he's a political novice taking on a challenging portfolio. Canada faces any number of large and complicated economic problems, from a population with more seniors than children, to anemic employment growth, to – as of Friday's decision by the Obama administration to kibosh the Keystone XL pipeline – an energy sector facing low prices and scant routes to market.

Fortunately, if Mr. Morneau's buttoned-down temperament makes an easy contrast with the bubbly Mr. Trudeau, so arguably does the depth of the Finance Minister's résumé.

Without too much prompting, he'll rattle off his CV, evincing a slightly defiant pride in the fact that, whatever he lacks in political experience, he makes up for in other areas: a BA from the University of Western Ontario (he studied political science), an MSc from the London School of Economics and an MBA from the French business school INSEAD. Then, after a stint at Lloyds Bank in London, came increasingly senior posts at his father's human resources firm, now called Morneau Shepell, which grew from 150 employees to nearly 4,000 under his leadership.

In 2010, he broadened his policy chops by becoming chair of the C.D. Howe Institute, a respected non-partisan think tank – only resigning after he gave the keynote speech to the Liberal convention in 2014, which heralded his entrance into politics.

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All the while, he maintained an impeccable record of philanthropic and voluntary work, chairing the boards of Covenant House and St. Michael's Hospital, and funding a high school for girls in a Kenyan refugee camp through his firm. He sponsored a girl from Uganda five years ago who is now part of his family and calls him "Dad." Grace, 19, attends Acadia University. He and his wife, Nancy, have three other teenage kids.

The general consensus among those who have worked with him, and even those who have worked against him, is that the 53-year-old Mr. Morneau is a pleasant, decent, impressive person. Even his political opponents struggle to find harsh words for the man.

"He's very personable," said Linda McQuaig, the NDP candidate for Toronto Centre, whom Mr. Morneau defeated handily this election. "I don't dislike the man. He's a very nice guy."

His tastes, as revealed in interviews over the years, certainly run to the inoffensive: Alice Munro, running, squash before he got a bad knee, Adele and Coldplay on the iPod. He once told the INSEAD alumni newsletter the worst part of working at Lloyds in the 1980s was the culture of drinking beer at lunch, which made him less productive in the afternoon.

Even Mr. Morneau's flashes of humour tend to revolve around his domestic probity. After introducing a reporter to a woman named Nancy in his hotel lobby, he said: "That's my wife, not my mistress. Don't have one of those. You can quote me on that."

Settling Conservative stomachs

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If Liberals will surely be relieved that Mr. Morneau's closet appears to be bereft of skeletons, some may be disappointed that his conservative lifestyle has often been mirrored by fairly conservative political pronouncements. The new finance minister is a fiscal hawk – or fiscally prudent, to use his preferred term.

"I think you always need someone in the room to say, 'Let's think hard about how much this is going to cost,'" he said, in his soft, almost boyish voice. "So that's a role that I need to play."

In the past, he has written that the welfare state is big enough already, and that Canadian taxes are as high as they can go.

"Canada is among the most highly taxed countries in the world, which leaves little room for increased taxation to cover future increases in healthcare costs," he wrote with Fred Vettese, chief actuary at Morneau Shepell, in their 2013 book, The Real Retirement. "Instead of expansions of the social safety net, there must be moderate cutbacks in social spending phased in over time," they continue, "or at least growth that is not in excess of the growth in GDP."

Some of his views on government pensions may prove controversial with the political left, too – not to mention the Liberal caucus. In 2013, Mr. Morneau gave a speech to the Public Policy Forum in Fredericton in which he questioned whether public-sector defined benefit pensions were sustainable.

"Who believes that the average Canadian, without a defined benefit plan … will, over the long term, agree to continue to fund public-sector employees' pensions at a level that they can only dream about attaining themselves?" he asked rhetorically.

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In their book, meanwhile, Mr. Vettese and Mr. Morneau write that increasing the eligibility age for Old Age Security from 65 to 67 would be a "step in the direction" of paring back government spending, a goal they approve of. The Conservatives introduced just such a change during their last government, to be phased in starting in 2023 – a vow the Liberals campaigned against and promised to repeal.

If Mr. Morneau is obviously tempted to repudiate parts of his book, now that he has a platform to defend, he stops short. "The nice thing about writing a book with another person is that you can always claim that he was stronger on one point than you were," he said. "But I'm not going to do that."

It's just as well: Mr. Vettese says his co-author went over the chapters he didn't write "with a fine-toothed comb."

Mr. Morneau is the kind of Liberal who settles Conservative stomachs. "I feel much better about this Liberal government knowing someone like him is in the mix," said Postmedia board chair Rod Phillips, who was CEO of Shepell.fgi when Mr. Morneau's firm bought the company.

"While I'm not a Liberal traditionally, if we're going to have Liberals, I'd like to have Bill Morneau have an important role," said Malcolm Hamilton, a senior fellow at the C.D. Howe Institute and former partner at Mercer, a Morneau Shepell competitor.

Mr. Morneau is no Conservative, of course, though he has donated to the election coffers of Conservative candidates as recently as the 2011 election. (He says the candidate, John Carmichael, was a social acquaintance and the donation wasn't an endorsement of the Tories.) Rather, Mr. Morneau has quietly been backing the Liberals for decades, he insists.

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"As far back as the early 1990s, I was actually hosting fundraisers for the Liberal Party," he said.

'Epidemic of worry'

That points to another incongruous feature of Mr. Morneau's appointment: his wealth. His stock holdings in Morneau Shepell are worth more than $30-million, according to regulatory records. His annual compensation, including salary and bonuses, was $1.1-million last year and $1.8-million the year before.

Meanwhile, his wife, Nancy, is a member of New Brunswick's McCain family, whose fortune dwarfs Mr. Morneau's. Their house, which they share with four kids in the tony Toronto enclave of Bennington Heights, is worth about $6-million, according to real estate listings.

And that lofty social position can leave Mr. Morneau tone-deaf to issues around economic hardship. For instance, he thinks the hand-wringing about job prospects for the young is exaggerated.

"A lot of that's blown up by the press, of course," he said. "Most of the really smart people find jobs. Even when there's high youth unemployment. The reality is, it's 13 per cent. That means 87 per cent are employed. But that logic doesn't seem to work so well."

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His glass-half-full thinking will likely strike some as complacence. Some on the left have already begun questioning his appointment. "Whose interests will new finance minister Bill Morneau serve?" ran a headline on the left-wing website rabble.ca Thursday.

Ms. McQuaig, for her part, wrote in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail that she had concerns about Mr. Morneau's closeness to Bay Street, despite liking him personally. "Indeed," she said, "I suspect that Bay Street's lack of protest over the prospect of a Trudeau government had a lot to do with the expectation that Morneau would be Finance minister. With Morneau at Finance, the Trudeau government will be unlikely to stray too far from policies acceptable to the financial elite."

But many who know Mr. Morneau through business, politics or the think-tank world say he's far from a cold-hearted plutocrat. They praise his kindness and his social conscience. Above all, they say, he genuinely believes in public service – in large part because of his enormous wealth, not despite it.

Although he was raised Catholic, Mr. Morneau says no deeper ideological or religious impulse fires his urge to give back. Rather, he seems motivated by a sense of duty, coupled with a businessman's zeal for problem-solving.

"There's certainly no religious or deeper moral foundation," he said. "It's a sense of wanting to improve our community. For selfish reasons, for the betterment of myself and my family, but for broader reasons. It's not based in any deeper cause. Other than thinking, if you have an opportunity to make a difference, you should take it."

His experience running a company specializing in pensions and benefits in particular has given him a first-hand look at stagnating middle-class wages. In his Liberal convention speech last year, he used that experience to showcase an unexpected version of himself: Bill Morneau as bleeding-heart liberal.

"Never have Canadians felt so anxious – anxious about everyday challenges. Anxious about their future. Anxious about their children's future," he said. This "epidemic of worry" was caused by "an economic sea change that's eroding middle-class dreams and hopes and security."

Today, he has softened his views on stopping the growth of the safety net. As standard-bearer for Liberal economic policy, he enthusiastically touts the party's pledge to raise the Guaranteed Income Supplement for single, low-income seniors; bolster the Canada Pension Plan; and ease access to employment insurance.

Those concerned about his streak of fiscal conservatism may find comfort in the fact that he is committed to implementing the Liberal platform, with its emphasis on spending to jolt the economy and raising taxes on the wealthy to make society fairer. And ideology aside, virtually everyone who knows him thinks he'll be an effective manager as he takes over the ministry. Mr. Morneau's fans are well-placed and effusive.

"He's outstanding," said former prime minister Paul Martin, another businessman-turned-Liberal finance minister, who worked with Mr. Morneau on a panel convened by the Ontario Liberal government last year to look into supplementing the CPP with a provincial top-up. "He's got a very solid grasp of most of the arcane details that affect the economy."

'It was Bill who stepped in'

While Mr. Morneau may know money, political acumen will certainly be on the syllabus as he settles into Parliament and the ministry. Navigating the bureaucracy, coping with the media and balancing partisan considerations will be new tricks for him.

He'll be helped by his chief of staff, Richard Maksymetz, a battle-hardened veteran of political backrooms who boasts a strong knowledge of the country's political geography. Mr. Maksymetz, who also served as chief of staff to British Columbia Finance Minister Mike de Jong, played a leading role in this fall's election campaign, managing much of the Liberals' field operations.

Originally from Alberta, Mr. Maksymetz – who was among those on the Liberal campaign who pushed for the party to invest considerable resources in trying to win seats in previously hostile cities such as Calgary – will also bring some Western perspective to the Toronto native's office.

Mr. Morneau projects a serene self-confidence about his ability to handle the new job. If he has any self-doubt, it's around matters not normally considered central to a finance minister's portfolio. "Doing radio interviews in French is not my most favourite thing," he said. (Despite having lived in France, he remains only tenuously bilingual.)

Indeed, people who know Mr. Morneau suggest his inexperience in handling the levers of government is unlikely to be a fatal disadvantage.

"The sort of citizen-statesman used to be the norm," Mr. Phillips noted. "You'd have the Conservative who'd be a car dealer, you'd have the Liberal who was probably a senior lawyer and you'd have the NDP candidate who was a high school teacher."

"I'd rather see the politicians try to behave more like Bill than to see Bill behave more like the politicians," Mr. Hamilton said.

In any case, former colleagues remember Mr. Morneau as a deft politician around the office: solicitous with clients and gifted with a diplomatic phrase, but also able to get what he wants. Mr. Vettese remembers those skills being particularly useful during the company's 1997 merger with actuarial firm Sobeco, which was based in Quebec. "It could have gone badly," Mr. Vettese said. "It was Bill who stepped in. He went to Montreal with his dad. And he made a great speech to them in French. And he won them over."

Mr. Phillips, who worked with Mr. Morneau after selling him his company, praised the new Finance Minister's boldness in continuing to make acquisitions and expand the family firm during the 2008 financial crisis.

"It's not uncommon for those guys to be very frightened of losing, especially if the father is still involved," Mr. Phillips said. "He grew the business, but it's safe to say that he didn't have to. … Food on the table was pretty much taken care of by Dad."

Mr. Hamilton, meanwhile, a former competitor of the family's, said Mr. Morneau had a much smoother style than his father, and was better at working with others.

"His father wasn't well liked by competitors. He was kind of a ruthless guy, as people who start companies from scratch often need to be," Mr. Hamilton said. "Bill didn't need to work to distinguish himself from his father. He was just naturally a very different kind of person."

Many others echoed that sentiment. For all his inexperience at parliamentary politics, they say, Mr. Morneau has proved himself often enough to inspire confidence in his new role.

"Is there a learning curve when you go into government? There certainly was for me," Mr. Martin said. "But for Bill Morneau, the learning curve is going to be very short."

With reports from Adam Radwanski and Bill Curry

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