When Bill Morneau woke up to hear that sources are saying he might not be Finance Minister much longer, you’d think he’d want to hear assurances from the mouth of the Prime Minister. But Justin Trudeau was on vacation.
Facing queries, the Prime Minister’s Office didn’t rush out the usual statement about the PM having confidence in his minister – the kind routinely issued even up to the eve of a sacking – until 2 p.m. At midday, the Reuters business wire was running a story saying the PMO told them they’d get back to them on that.
Then came the huff and puff of a PMO statement saying that Mr. Trudeau has “full confidence” in his Finance Minister, but not saying Mr. Morneau will be doing that job six weeks from now.
There was no gainsaying the point reported in The Globe and Mail earlier on Tuesday morning: The PM isn’t sure he’s going to keep Mr. Morneau as Finance Minister. While Mr. Trudeau is off thinking about the big things that come next, he is considering whether Mr. Morneau will be the Finance Minister for the recovery agenda. Maybe yes, maybe no.
Canada’s Finance Minister is twisting in the wind.
Not at just any time, mind you. Mr. Morneau’s role at the helm of the public finances is in doubt right in the middle of a pandemic, when the treasury is expecting the largest annual budget deficit since the Second World War, and when the recovery of the country’s economy from deep distress is uncertain.
There can be no doubt that Mr. Morneau and the people who huddle around him at the Finance Department will see it as a knife in the guts. Certainly, they would have been itching to see the PMO issue a statement of support. When it came, it had to be read for what it did and didn’t say.
Of course the PM thinks that Mr. Morneau has done a bang-up job as Finance Minister, the statement told us, effusively listing bits of his record. Of course the PM has confidence in him, it said, “and any statement to the contrary is false.” Mr. Morneau – nay, the entire cabinet – will keep doing the work needed to get Canadians through the pandemic, it said.
That will be familiar to sports fans, who will recognize it as the kind of thing the general manager says the day before the coach gets fired.
Opposition politicians were already howling for Mr. Morneau’s resignation over the WE controversy, because he only belatedly repaid about $41,000 for travel expenses footed by WE Charity, and didn’t recuse himself from deliberations when the government decided to pay WE as much as $43.5-million to hand out up to $500-million in grants for student volunteers.
But even if he wanted to, the Prime Minister couldn’t make Mr. Morneau the fall guy for that. From what we know so far, Mr. Trudeau’s conflict is just as palpable as his.
There have been some tensions, however, between the PMO and Mr. Morneau in the heat of the coronavirus crisis, when the government rushed to pour out emergency benefits, wage subsidies and programs to prevent wholesale bankruptcies among small businesses. The Prime Minister’s aides thought Mr. Morneau resisted, and some of Mr. Morneau’s boosters suspected the PMO was pinning blame for errors on the Finance Minister, while scooping up credit for themselves.
Now Mr. Trudeau, contemplating a big, interventionist recovery agenda, is considering whether Mr. Morneau should be at the centre of the planning.
On one level, that’s just political life. Every minister can be shuffled anytime. But Mr. Morneau has always been said to be a one-job politician – he wants to be the finance minister, doesn’t aspire to be prime minister and isn’t interested in another portfolio. He is still in the midst of the most turbulent economic period Canada has seen in generations, which isn’t the ideal time to change finance minister. And, of course, Mr. Morneau hasn’t been shuffled. At least not yet.
He’s a finance minister who might be staying. Can he speak to chief executive officers or provincial counterparts with the same authority? In politics, the suggestion he might go can sometimes be a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading to the conclusion that he has to go. For now, Mr. Morneau is drifting in the breeze.
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