Did Justin Trudeau push out Bill Morneau because the latter’s $41,000 in unreimbursed WE Charity expenses compounded the Liberals’ embarrassment, or because he wanted a relaunch with a new finance minister as the face of the postpandemic agenda?
Either way, Mr. Trudeau got what he wanted. And in a stark way.
Days of public speculation about Mr. Morneau’s future left him twisting in the wind, until the Prime Minister came back from a holiday, and his finance minister of five years was out. Gone.
Then, in one swift stroke of the sword, Parliament was cut off, too, with prorogation – but not for the usual period of a week or so, taken when governments want to reboot and relaunch a new agenda in a Speech from the Throne. This was a five-week shuttering, a duration that parliamentary experts always advise against, in case there’s a need for emergency legislation in an crisis. Like, say, a pandemic.
Yet the move disrupted parliamentary hearings by multiple committees that were poking through annoying tidbits on the WE Charity controversy, even if they weren’t massive new revelations. And it kept new Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole from taking a seat in the House of Commons until he has his back against the wall – forced to take a stand on the Liberal recovery agenda in at least two confidence votes that in theory could trigger a snap election.
The last two weeks of August put one thing clearly on view: the ruthlessness of Justin Trudeau.
His political brand may still revolve around empathy, and over the first months of the pandemic, his popularity rose as he promised Canadians he’d have their backs. But in recent weeks, his personal and political moves have been all about tough calculations.
There was a mischaracterization, fed as much by his opponents as his supporters in the days he was running for the top job in 2014 and 2015, that Mr. Trudeau was some kind of soft, squidgy kid who needed somebody to make the tough decisions. People talked about his EQ – his emotional intelligence quotient. There was going to be team decisions and collegiality and listening and sensitivity.
His move to prorogue broke his 2015 promise not to use the action to “avoid difficult political circumstances” – a promise that highlighted former prime minister’s Stephen Harper prorogue in 2008 to avoid a vote on a non-confidence motion. If Mr. Trudeau just wanted a Throne Speech on Sept. 23, he could have prorogued Parliament in mid-September. But he wanted an edge on his political opponents.
With Mr. Morneau, we only saw a messy example of Mr. Trudeau’s hard edge with his own ministers.
He put John McCallum and Stéphane Dion in his first cabinet for their experience, but he tired of hearing old hands lecture, so in 2017 he sent them off to diplomatic posts. The reassignments were made public before Mr. Dion had decided if he wanted to be ambassador to both the European Union and Germany – and, as it turns out, his hosts didn’t want the dual appointment.
Mr. Morneau played along with Mr. Trudeau by resigning and announcing the Prime Minister will back his bid to be secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development. There is now a team of officials working on the campaign, but it won’t be easy: The past two secretaries-general have been a Mexican and a Canadian, and Europeans might be expecting one of their own to get the job. Will Mr. Trudeau campaign hard for a minister he just let go?
After all, Mr. Trudeau has shown he is willing to let Canadian candidates dangle even if they have a good shot at an international post.
When General Jonathan Vance, the Chief of the Defence Staff, asked to be put up as a candidate to be chairman of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s military committee in Brussels – a moderately prestigious post available only to outgoing national military chiefs – Mr. Trudeau’s answer was no.
Gen. Vance was appointed by Mr. Harper, and didn’t exactly fit the style of Mr. Trudeau’s Prime Minister’s Office. But he was the longest serving chief of the Canadian military, and a Canadian who was probably the favourite for a NATO headquarters post, up against a Dutch general and a less-experienced Polish general. Yet Mr. Trudeau didn’t back Gen. Vance, who announced his retirement in July.
Mr. Trudeau, it turns out, isn’t the soft, EQ prime minister. By 2020, we should know he has a ruthless streak.
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