Followers of federal politics continue to struggle to understand how it is that Finance Minister Bill Morneau, who is not an unintelligent man, and who is surrounded and supported by individuals of acute political savvy, arranged his affairs so as to put himself in a position where he has become Question Period's main target. He now has a full-time job defending his fitness to continue holding his full-time job.
He is accused of conflicts of interest, and it's not an accusation the opposition has spun from whole cloth. On the contrary, much the material is genuine, and of the Finance Minister's own making.
When Mr. Morneau left Bay Street and was elected two years ago, it was widely expected that he would be named Finance Minister. What is unexpected is that his ministry now finds itself floundering, not due to economic forces beyond the Minister's control, but due to questions about his personal finances, which were very much within his control.
It's all so surprising because Mr. Morneau has never struck anyone as the kind of person who entered public life with the goal of using his position to get rich – or in his case, richer. The idea that he would look to take advantage of a public position for private benefit is just about the last thought that comes to the mind of anyone who meets him. He is the opposite of the slick grifter.
Instead, he comes across as the guy who, if he were unlucky enough to stumble upon a $20 bill lying on the street, would either ignore it or quietly try to find its rightful owner. If he has a brand, that's part of it. Or at least it was.
A lot of people who have interacted with him surely felt that way about him – likely including his colleagues in government, his advisors and, to his own peril, the man himself. That may be how he, and the government, fell into error.
Everyone around him may have become so convinced that since the Finance Minister is an unimpeachably upstanding guy, as is everyone in the Trudeau government, they could allow him, and he could allow himself, to be placed in a situation that any objective observer would conclude shows all the signs of looking, walking and talking like a conflict of interest.
For two years, while serving as Finance Minister, Mr. Morneau held millions of dollars' worth of shares in Morneau Shepell, the company that bears his name, and which he ran before going into politics. The firm, which does business in fields such as pension management, is effectively the object of some government policies, and in particular stands to be impacted by Bill C-27, a piece of pension legislation that Mr. Morneau advocated before becoming a politician, and backed as Minister.
Did Mr. Morneau's stock holdings benefit from the introduction of Bill C-27? Possibly not – the stock went up in the days after the legislation was introduced, then subsequently lost even more value. And both Morneau Shepell and Mr. Morneau have insisted that the bill touches on only a small part of the company's business.
But an actual financial gain isn't the measure of a conflict of interest. A conflict occurs when someone appears to be standing on both sides of the fence at the same time, acting as regulator and regulated, or exercising a public trust in an area where they also have private interests.
The substance of Bill C-27 is that it offers federally-regulated companies an opportunity to move from defined benefit pension plans, where the cost of paying future pensions rests entirely with the employer, to target benefit pension plans, where risks are shared between employers and employees. That is an idea worth debating – but because of Mr. Morneau's own financial connection to all of this, the substance of the issue is not what anyone is talking about.
If Mr. Morneau had sold off all of his shares in Morneau Shepell long ago, Canada would be debating the merits of Bill C-27's pension reform. Instead, we're having a national debate over what impact this pension reform, potentially affecting the finances of millions of Canadians, has had on the finances of one Canadian – the Finance Minister.
Mr. Morneau and those advising him in the Liberal government are the authors of this. They had two years to avoid putting the Finance Minister in this position. The opposition are exploiting the issue every day in Question Period because there's something to exploit. They're digging into a story, not inventing one.
If Mr. Morneau is ultimately brought down by this, no one should cheer. It will not be a happy outcome. This isn't a case of a Finance Minister done in by terrible policy choices, nor does it appear to be the corruption of someone caught reaching into the cookie jar. Instead, it's been a kind of moral and procedural blindness – a blindness to the need to follow rules and principles that, when they were in opposition and somebody else was in power, the Liberals could clearly see. Everyone around Mr. Morneau gave him the benefit of the doubt, and he gave it to himself too – to such an extent that what's left is a lot of doubt.
When he recently and finally sold his shares in Morneau Shepell, the minister did the right thing. But it came too late, and that's why questions – legitimate questions – continue to be asked about how we ended up here and what he did, and did not do, over the last two years.