In 2005, philosopher Harry Frankfurt published a bestseller titled On Bullshit. In a tight 80 pages, the Princeton University professor defines his subject as speech whose goal is persuasion without regard for the truth.
When Finance Minister Bill Morneau suddenly announced his resignation on Monday night, the words he was forced to use – starting with the howler that this was a long-planned, voluntary “resignation” – were of the genus explored by Mr. Frankfurt. As were high-level government leaks, each more Frankfurtian than the last, which over the previous week had been designed to besmirch Mr. Morneau and set the stage for his departure.
Like someone emerging into the light after a long Maoist struggle session, on Monday night Mr. Morneau said that his abrupt leave-taking was, in fact, part of a “plan” he’d had since entering politics. He’d always intended to serve for only two terms. And so, in the middle of an economic crisis on which he was the lead minister, just 10 months after re-election and with the next fixed election date 38 months away, he had to resign. Immediately.
And in any case, leaving would give him time to apply for his real dream job: secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. So, it was time to go. After a hastily called news conference. With Prime Minister Justin Trudeau not in attendance, but tweeting out fulsome praise – all the sincerity of a drugstore condolence card; all the personalization of a form letter – for someone his minions had spent the previous week smearing.
The explanation for Mr. Morneau’s surprise “resignation” is as covered in Frankfurt as Mr. Trudeau’s surprise claim last month, before a House of Commons committee, that when he found out WE Charity was about to be awarded a huge contract, he “pushed back” and demanded more due diligence. If that’s what happened, then why didn’t the PM and the ministers and bureaucrats defending him say a word about it, for weeks? Why was the most exculpatory explanation not the first thing he had to say, but the last?
In the parliamentary system, cabinets get shuffled, and ministers with them. It happens. There’s no reason for there to be anything dishonourable about the business. Mr. Morneau, the only finance minister the Trudeau government has ever known, has been in the job for nearly five years. It was a long run. It was a good run. If the PM felt it was time for a change, a change could have been made with grace.
If the PM believed Mr. Morneau’s oversights on the WE file demanded a resignation, that could have been done, too. Apologize for the error, step down, do time in the penalty box and eventually return to the ice. In the old tradition of ministerial responsibility, that’s how it went. Though, owing to Mr. Trudeau’s similar, bigger WE problem, perhaps that couldn’t be given as the public reason for Mr. Morneau’s removal.
And if this was about making room for Mark Carney – opening up a safe Liberal seat, and the most powerful ministry – then why not just say that? The government could sell it as going from strength to strength. Ditto for moving Chrystia Freeland into Finance.
But that’s not how this went down. Instead, anonymous Liberal sources were dispatched to insinuate that the Trudeau government was Animal Farm, and Mr. Morneau was Snowball. The tale being shopped around last week was that the erstwhile Finance Minister of The Middle Class and Those Working Hard to Join It had secretly been working hard to stick it to hard-working Canadians – and it was only thanks to the PM’s intervention against this Conservative mole in his cabinet that Ottawa’s generous pandemic economic bailout package came to be.
Who comes up with these whoppers? But these off-the-record allegations against Mr. Morneau do serve a purpose, namely aiming to brand the next election as a binary choice between open-the-taps Liberals and cut-now Conservatives. Right-leaning commentators have unwittingly furthered this rebranding, by repeating it as gospel.
However, the trouble with a government smearing its most prominent minister is that, in trying to dirty him, it has mostly soiled itself.
In a Trudeau cabinet of spokesmodels – men and women who dutifully recite whatever script is handed them – Mr. Morneau was one of the few who offered something more. There aren’t many like that in this government, and today there’s one fewer.
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