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Behind closed doors, Bill Morneau comes off differently. He's a little tougher, clearer on his goals. In public, the Finance Minister looks less assertive – and sometimes like a deer caught in the camera lights.

The difference, some people who know him say, is excessive, fearful caution. The former chief executive wanted to steer fiscal policy but also steer clear of embarrassing the government. Then he became the government's chief embarrassment of 2017.

And ever since Mr. Morneau's small-business tax reforms and ethics controversies put him through the political meat grinder last year, he has gone through a political education.

The outcome, according to some close to him, is that in his third year as Finance Minister, he has accepted that he's a politician. That means doing politics: being prepared for attacks on his policies, being on camera and selling his initiatives to the public – and even to MPs in his own caucus.

The first real test starts with his third budget on Tuesday – a fiscal blueprint that by all accounts will be very political.

All budgets are political, of course, but some are about putting a political spin on economic plans. Think of Liberal Paul Martin's 1995 deficit slasher or Conservative Jim Flaherty's $56-billion deficit amid the financial crisis in 2009. Mr. Morneau's first budget made an economic and political statement by running bigger-than-expected deficits to fund infrastructure and social spending.

But this year's budget won't be about economic shifts – such as competing with U.S. tax cuts or trimming the deficit in case of a recession or the failure of NAFTA talks. This will be a budget driven by a political narrative, a gender-sensitive budget expected to have a variety of relatively small-dollar measures threaded throughout.

That's an important narrative for Justin Trudeau's Liberal government, which wants to fuel its lead with female voters by sending a message that it's trying to close the gender gap in the work force. Even if this budget doesn't come with pre-election spending, it is already – 20 months before voting day – a pre-election budget.

It's not Mr. Morneau's job to call the big political plays. They come from the Prime Minister's Office, notably Mr. Trudeau's principal secretary, Gerald Butts, and chief of staff, Katie Telford. (The secondary budget theme of supporting science and research comes, however, from Mr. Morneau.) The Finance Minister's job is to sell the politics in economics form – in this case, to make the case that the measures will work and that closing the gender gap leads to economic growth.

In fact, Mr. Morneau's job isn't just putting a political spin on finance; it's putting an economics spin on Liberal politics. Mr. Trudeau needs Mr. Morneau, or someone like him, to do it.

That's counterintuitive. Mr. Morneau walked into a mess last year with his small-business tax reforms – and walked out with his reputation weakened.

His political education included admitting he knew that wealthy Canadians would be upset by his tax changes; that he should have been better prepared for the uproar and the down-and-dirty fight that ensued; that he can't just be the minister setting policy – he is the public figure who must do the politics.

The tax changes morphed into personal politics when it emerged that Mr. Morneau had not sold his shares in his former firm, Morneau Sheppell. The opposition levelled charges of insider trading and conflict of interest, which he fumbled. He backed off many of his reforms, promised to donate share gains to charity and is still waiting for Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion to complete a second report on conflict allegations. Politics might as well have hit Mr. Morneau on the head with a hammer in 2017.

Still, Mr. Trudeau needs a figure like Mr. Morneau. Inside government, he gets credit for his economic acumen and for things such as making deals with provinces on health care and expanding the Canada Pension Plan.

This is a Liberal cabinet with liberal spending instincts. And it doesn't have as many business-oriented blue Liberals as the cabinets of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin. Mr. Morneau is virtually the only voice for (limited) spending restraint, apart from a few sympathizers such as Treasury Board President Scott Brison. And the Liberals do best politically when there is a prominent voice of restraint to reassure the public. Mr. Morneau's budget won't slash the deficit, but the test of his influence will be its constraints. The Liberals have to hope that his political education will rebuild his reputation, because they need someone to put an economic spin on their politics.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau tried on new shoes at a Toronto public school on Friday as part of a pre-budget tradition. Morneau says next week’s federal budget will strive to remove anything impeding the economic success of women.

The Canadian Press

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