When Bill Morneau announced his resignation Monday – both as Canada’s Finance Minister and as MP for Toronto Centre – he insisted the decision was his and his alone.
“No,” Mr. Morneau said point-blank, when asked if Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had asked for his resignation. “This morning I went to the Prime Minister and I tendered my resignation.”
Mr. Morneau had, until then, been subject to a barrage of leaks about a supposedly growing rift between him and Mr. Trudeau. Sources told Reuters Mr. Morneau was being stingy on pandemic recovery plans and reluctant to invest in green initiatives. They told The Globe and Mail he was too conservative on COVID-19 relief measures.
Senior sources said Mr. Morneau blindsided the PMO when he revealed he repaid the WE organization for trips he and his family took in 2017. And Bloomberg reported that the Prime Minister had found a new informal financial adviser in former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney.
Together, it was hardly more subtle than if a PMO source had gone on record to say: “Pssst, Bill. The PM says pack your things.”
But for Mr. Morneau to concede to the obvious – that an ethical scandal had made his presence in cabinet untenable – would mean an undignified exit for him and leave uncomfortable questions for Mr. Trudeau about what made the Finance Minister’s WE-related transgressions materially worse than his own.
So, Mr. Morneau instead delivered a cheap and unconvincing story about how Canada needs a finance minister for a long-term recovery, and since he never intended to run for more than two elections, the appropriate time for him to resign was now: just 10 months after campaigning for re-election, in the middle of a global pandemic, with the federal debt poised to cross the $1-trillion mark and the country grappling with economic upheaval unlike anything we have ever before seen. Indeed, according to him, there was simply no better moment for him to pursue his new ambition: to become secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Mr. Morneau’s exit was of the same tenor of his role in cabinet over the past five years: enduringly in service to the Trudeau machine, selling a line one gets the sense he doesn’t really believe. While he oversaw several bold and successful initiatives – a more equitable Canada Child Benefit, the completion of a new health accord with the provinces – he was also the frontman in a battle with small business owners over supposed tax loopholes, while using something of a loophole himself to maintain ownership of shares in Morneau Shepell. Mr. Morneau was tasked with defending his government’s ever-increasing spending and higher-than-projected deficits, ignoring warnings from credit agencies that Canada’s (pre-COVID) debt made it vulnerable in case of economic downturn.
Mr. Morneau was also responsible for expanding the Canada Pension Plan and delivering on Mr. Trudeau’s 2015 promise to halt the planned rise in Old Age Security (OAS) and Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) eligibility from age 65 to 67 – though he co-authored a book about the misconception that Canada is headed into a retirement crisis. “Instead of expansions of the social safety net,” Mr. Morneau and his co-author, Fred Vettese, wrote in The Real Retirement in 2013, “there must be moderate cutbacks in social spending phased in over time – or at least growth that is not in excess of the growth in GDP. Phasing in the eligibility age for OAS and GIS from 65 to 67 is a step in that direction.”
A couple of years later, Mr. Morneau was in the House of Commons, eating his own words.
Such is the indignity of a life in partisan politics. Back in 2015, Mr. Morneau was pegged as a figure of restraint and common sense in a cabinet rife with cavalier ideology. He was a Bay Street guy and former chair of the C.D. Howe Institute, who was supposed to bring his fiscal hawkishness and real-world sensibilities to a government with a distinct and lofty progressive bent. And he did bring them with him – except he left them outside the cabinet room and instead rattled off the government’s inane talking points.
Even in his exit, Mr. Morneau was swallowed by the Trudeau machine: delivering a story the listener knows the speaker doesn’t believe, in preservation of a brand for which his job was mostly to conform. The leaks about Mr. Morneau’s sudden austerity depicted him, rather ironically, fulfilling a role many on the outside expected him to serve when appointed as one of the adults in cabinet in 2015. But on the inside, his role was merely as one of the PMO’s children.
In the end, this kid made the PMO look too bad to stick around. But to save face in front of the neighbours, we’ll just say he’s going to college.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story referred to Bill Morneau maintaining shares in his family business; in fact, Morneau Shepell is a publicly traded company.
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