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Finance Minister Bill Morneau gets low ratings in new poll

Finance Minister Bill Morneau, seen on Parliament Hill on Nov. 1, has an examination launched against him by Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson regarding his role in the recent C-27 pension bill.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Finance Minister Bill Morneau is getting low performance ratings and many Canadians want him to step aside as the Trudeau government faces a crisis of credibility over whether its economic policies are helping low- and middle-income Canadians, according to a new opinion poll.

A substantial majority of Canadians also say conflict-of-interest laws should be rewritten to require all federal cabinet ministers to divest assets and put them in a blind trust.

About four out of 10 Canadians believe Liberal economic policies are most beneficial to upper-income Canadians rather than the middle class and poor for which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau likes to cast himself as the chief defender.

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Read also: Ethics Commissioner launches examination of alleged Morneau conflict over pension bill

When asked by Nanos Research whom Liberal economic policies are helping, 41 per cent of those polled said upper-income Canadians, 17 per cent said lower-income Canadians and 14 per cent identified middle-income earners.

The poll of 1,000 Canadians was conducted for The Globe and Mail from Nov. 4 to Nov. 7 after the Liberals reversed course on controversial small-business tax reforms and Mr. Morneau landed in the centre of an ethical scandal over the handling of his family's wealth and federal pension legislation.

Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson announced on Friday that she is launching a formal examination into Mr. Morneau's role in the finance department's drafting of the Bill C-27 pension bill and his decision as Minister to sponsor it in Parliament.

"Research suggests the government's economic narrative has been overshadowed by controversies related to the proposed changes to the tax rules on small corporations, and the personal finances of the minister of finance," pollster Nik Nanos told The Globe.

"Four in 10 Canadians think it's time for a new minister of finance, and only a minority believe the government is working to help middle- and lower-class Canadians."

The Liberal government has faced weeks of relentless grilling in Parliament and tough criticism in editorial pages after The Globe revealed in October that Mr. Morneau used a loophole in the Conflict of Interest Act to avoid putting his substantial holdings in a blind trust.

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The Finance Minister's ethical troubles are hurting his credibility with 40 per cent of Canadians saying it is time for a new finance minister, while 29 per cent say he should stay and 31 per cent are unsure.

The Nanos survey is considered accurate to within 3.1 percentage points, plus or minus, 19 times out of 20.

Mr. Morneau had left the impression for two years that his wealth was in a blind trust at the same time he sponsored Bill C-27 pension reform legislation that conceivably could benefit Morneau Shepell, a large human resource and pension management firm where he had been executive chair and still held one million shares valued at more than $20-million.

Mr. Morneau subsequently sold his shares and is in the process of setting up a blind trust. He also promised to donate $5-million to charity on profits earned on the Morneau Shepell shares since becoming Finance Minister.

When he was running Morneau Shepell, Mr. Morneau was a high-profile advocate for this type of legislation that would enable federally regulated businesses to create "target benefit" pension plans that lower the monetary liability for employers by shifting risk to employees. The proposed law would require actuarial valuations every year for this type of plan, which could also mean more work for firms such as Morneau Shepell.

The ethics screen called for Mr. Morneau's chief of staff to tell the Finance Minister when he had to recuse himself from discussions that involved his former company. Mr. Morneau said he did not recuse himself from discussions about Bill C-27.

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The Nanos poll found 70 per cent of Canadians believe Mr. Morneau should have sold his assets and put them in a blind trust in 2015, immediately before he entered cabinet. Only 10 per cent somewhat disagree while 9 per cent disagree and 6 per cent were unsure.

Significantly, 86 per cent of Canadians said it was important or somewhat important that cabinet ministers place personal assets in a blind trust when they join cabinet.

The number of Canadians who "want cabinet ministers to make sure their assets are sold or in a blind trust is high," Mr. Nanos said. "Likewise, a significant majority of Canadians believe Morneau should have sold or put his assets in a blind trust back in 2015. It shouldn't be a surprise that Canadians are more likely to think that it is time for a new minister of finance, rather than thinking Morneau has done a good job and should stay."

Conflict-of-interest law in Canada requires cabinet ministers to divest assets such as publicly traded shares by selling them in an arm's-length transaction or putting them in a blind trust beyond reach until they leave office.

The exception, according to the Ethics Commissioner's office, is if these shares or similar assets are held indirectly through a holding company or similar mechanism.

Ms. Dawson has been asking since 2013 for the loophole to be closed.

Adding to the perception that the Liberals are out of touch with ordinary Canadians were recent revelations in the Paradise Papers that the Liberal party chief fundraiser, billionaire Stephen Bronfman, had ties to an offshore trust in the Cayman Islands, an allegation he has denied.

Mr. Bronfman said he had no direct or indirect involvement with the trust other than an arm's-length loan made more than 25 years ago that was repaid five months later.

The Prime Minister has come under fire for his holidays at the private Bahamian island owned by the Aga Khan, a billionaire philanthropist and spiritual leader of the world's Ismaili Muslims.

Bill Morneau fights back as ethics accusations continue (The Canadian Press)
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About the Authors
Ottawa Bureau Chief

Robert Fife is The Globe and Mail's Ottawa Bureau Chief and the host of CTV's "Question Period with The Globe and Mail's Robert Fife." He uncovered the Senate expense scandal, setting the course for an RCMP investigation, audits and reform of Senate expense rules. In 2012, he exposed the E. More

Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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