What should a finance minister be? And what road should bring a person to the job?
Bill Morneau, who was pushed out of the job by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this week, was a prototypical finance minister – a man with business experience in the private sector and ties to Bay Street, Canada’s nexus of bankers and investors in Toronto.
Before him, it was Michael Wilson who most fit the prototype. He was a Bay Street investment executive before he became Brian Mulroney’s finance minister in 1984. He helped craft the free-trade agreement with the United States and introduced the GST. He later helped negotiate the North American free-trade agreement.
It makes sense to have someone embedded in Canada’s business world oversee the nation’s finances. But it’s a mistake to believe that’s the only acceptable curriculum vitae for the most important job in the federal cabinet outside of prime minister.
Jim Flaherty, after whom the Finance Canada building in Ottawa is named, did not follow the old path. He worked as a personal injury lawyer before entering Ontario provincial politics, where he served as labour minister and attorney-general, before he rose to finance minister. In 2006, he became Stephen Harper’s finance minister – and guided Canada through the 2008-09 global financial crisis.
In British Columbia, the province whose finances are arguably the strongest in the country, Carole James worked in social services before extensive local and provincial political experience led to her appointment as B.C. Finance Minister in 2017. She has presided over budgets that balance prudence and ambition, work this page has supported.
Chrystia Freeland, who was named federal Finance Minister on Tuesday, also defies the old archetype.
She is the first woman in the job in Canada’s history, and she has never worked in banking or finance. Some have questioned her qualifications, given the intense pressure on government finances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Her résumé, however, is sterling. From an early start as deputy editor of this newspaper, she went on to senior jobs at the Financial Times and Thomson Reuters. Her 2012 book Plutocrats was an investigation of the world’s richest people and the global problem of income inequality.
In government, as minister of international trade, Ms. Freeland, like Mr. Wilson, has had her hands all over major trade deals. She earned praise for leading Canada’s defence of NAFTA, and for negotiating the subsequent Canada-Mexico-United States Agreement.
In 2018, as foreign minister, she was named diplomat of the year by Washington’s Foreign Policy magazine. She is considered a savvy negotiator and a good listener (a skill Mr. Morneau lacked), and she’s tough – standing up to, and earning the ire of, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump.
She’s made mistakes. Criticizing Saudi Arabia on Twitter was miscalculated. Worse, she and the Liberal government have badly underestimated Xi Jinping’s China.
But Ms. Freeland has the experience and abilities needed in these troubled times. Her toughest job, in fact, may be having to stand up to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, what with his disdain for contrary opinions. A finance minister can only be as good as her advice being heard and acted on.
Given that Mr. Trudeau and Ms. Freeland seem to agree on an expansionary agenda, there may be little friction between them. Mr. Trudeau outlined big ambitions this week when he prorogued Parliament and announced his government will deliver a Throne Speech on Sept. 23. He also made the case for Canada’s fiscal capacity to deliver expanded programs through deficit spending.
This page supports policies such as pharmacare, and has argued repeatedly that Canada can shoulder rising debt while tackling national challenges in health, education and poverty. But it won’t be easy. Ms. Freeland’s role will be to oversee the judicious pursuit of an ambitious agenda. As Mr. Trudeau’s minority government pushes new ideas, restraint will still be essential.
What is certain is Ms. Freeland is well qualified for the job. Her career has been defined by a critical, outsider eye on the worlds of politics, finance and trade, and her accomplishments compare easily with those of her successful forebears.
Now she has her toughest assignment yet.
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