Bill Morneau is not making it easy for Justin Trudeau to keep him in his job.
Federal finance ministers do not usually get demoted. Unlike most other cabinet posts, those assigned to it at a government's outset – Jim Flaherty under Stephen Harper, Paul Martin under Jean Chrétien, Michael Wilson under Brian Mulroney – tend to provide almost as great a sense of continuity as the prime ministers they serve.
So, as Mr. Morneau stumbled his way through an ill-conceived package of reforms aimed at closing tax loopholes, idle speculation about whether Mr. Trudeau might shuffle him out seemed little more than that. There would be no graceful way to get Mr. Morneau out of the job, and Mr. Trudeau seemed likelier to give him more chance to grow into it than to humiliate one of his most prized recruits.
But this week, Mr. Morneau became more and more of a problem for the PM – not just because of revelations about how he managed his own finances after his appointment, but because of how he has responded to the controversy.
Even as he has announced that, after two years on the job, he will divest his shares in his family firm, Morneau Shepell, he has made abundantly clear that he does not think he did anything wrong. Taking apparent advantage of a loophole in ethics rules to avoid putting the shares in a blind trust, then proceeding with changes to private-pension regulation while maintaining active interest in a company that (among other things) sells private pensions – he could not really be faulted for that because he acted within the letter of the law as interpreted by the Ethics Commissioner.
"I, perhaps naively, thought that in Canada, following the rules and respecting the recommendations of the Ethics Commissioner … would be what Canadians would expect," Mr. Morneau said in Thursday's divestment announcement.
If that sounded passive-aggressive, he got aggressive-aggressive on Friday. "The process that we have in our country isn't that I report to journalists on my personal situation," he said when asked at a news conference about his use of numbered companies while minister, "it's that I report to the Ethics Commissioner."
That was probably not a talking point provided by the Prime Minister's Office. As Mr. Morneau this week appeared to be getting more defensive with each passing day, the people around Mr. Trudeau seemed to be increasingly aware the Finance Minister's foibles pointed to cultural problems they need to address.
Mr. Trudeau did defend his embattled treasurer earlier in the week, on the same basic premise that he relied in good faith on the Ethics Commissioner's advice. But as it wore on, senior Liberals did not, as they have on other matters, use social media to push back hard against criticism; there were few unsolicited testimonials to Mr. Morneau's great character, of the sort governments sometimes offer when a member of their ranks is under fire.
The quiet message being sent out by Mr. Trudeau's advisers was that the government deserves at least some of the grief it is getting, and has to learn from it.
For the better part of two years, a long honeymoon insulated the Liberals from the consequences of both growing pains and a creeping arrogance.
Inevitably, a cabinet heavy on political novices would make some mistakes. But if the government stayed focused on getting the big things right – a favourite mantra in the PMO – then surely little errors would not matter so much. And clearly, Canadians could tell that this was a government of earnest, service-oriented people, whose missteps would still be borne of good intentions.
Now, there has been a reminder that if you are not careful, small things can turn into big things, and they can affect your perceived character. Clearly, nobody was paying enough attention to what Mr. Morneau was doing with his assets. Nor how he was dealing with seemingly unsexy policies coming out of his department – such as the inept roll-out of the effort to close tax loopholes, by a minister himself apparently taking advantage of other loopholes.
The odds are that other unpleasant surprises are lurking in other ministries – other ministers with a fuzzy grasp on ethical expectations, or other politically unpalatable policies being pushed past them by their bureaucrats.
The Liberals may have to face yet-unknown fallout from spending half their term not sweating small stuff. But it is in Mr. Trudeau's interests to communicate internally that the bar is being raised from this point – to hold up Mr. Morneau as a cautionary tale of what happens if they fail to consider how each action would look through the eyes of voters.
That need not mean replacing him, necessarily. It may be that, as some observers predict, Mr. Morneau is so poor a fit for politics that he will go of his own volition before the next election. But as he effectively pronounces that he does not answer to the public on his ethics, he is making it really hard for Mr. Trudeau to keep him in the post even that long, if the PM wants to signal anything approaching a culture change.