After months of commendation for his collaborative and confident leadership in Canada’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the last few weeks have been much less kind to Finance Minister Bill Morneau. Rumblings of a cabinet shuffle are getting louder and the knives are out. But with the country in uncharted economic waters, facing the most critical budget cycle in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s tenure, is it really the time for him to remove the only finance minister he has ever worked with?
The ongoing WE saga has undoubtedly caused some acute damage to Morneau. None of which is unfair. What has emerged since the WE deal has been put under the microscope includes family connections to WE Charity, large donations made to WE, and expensive trips he and his family took at the expense of WE. Some of which Morneau only repaid the day of his committee appearance on the matter. At least one of the family trips also seems to have involved the prima facie breach of the rules due to travel via private aircraft. The Ethics Commissioner is investigating both Morneau and Trudeau over their involvement in the WE contract. Meanwhile the Official Opposition has already called for Morneau’s resignation, and Bloc Quebecois leader Yves-François Blanchet thinks everyone should resign and is threatening a motion of non-confidence if that doesn’t happen. If Morneau or his family accepted travel by private aircraft, he would almost certainly be found in violation of the Conflict of Interest Act rules around sponsored travel for cabinet ministers. Just as the Prime Minister was for his family’s trips to the Aga Khan’s residence via private helicopter. In addition to the damage to Morneau, the slow burn of this tepid “scandal” through the summer months has hurt the Liberals and hurt the Prime Minister – with polls showing that much of the pandemic response bounce they had been enjoying has all but disappeared.
The damage to Morneau continued this week – but this time from within his own party. On Monday it was reported that Mark Carney is playing an increasingly important role advising the Prime Minister on matters of the economy, traditionally the domain of the Finance Minister. The very next day, Bob “The Knife” Fife published a piece in the Globe & Mail that referenced multiple insider sources claiming that Bill Morneau and the Prime Minister had been on opposite sides of key COVID-19 measures and that Morneau’s job was in jeopardy. The response from PMO was conspicuously delayed, possibly the result of a skeleton PMO staff, until mid-afternoon when the office sent a firm statement of confidence in Minister Morneau to the media. Some are still parsing the statement and pointing to a lack of full support for Minister Morneau to remain in his post as Finance Minister.
Until the emergence of the WE issue, “the street” was expecting Minister Morneau to lead the development and delivery of an Economic and Fiscal Update in the fall, which is likely to contain additional responses to the COVID-19 crisis, lay bare the strengths and weaknesses of the Canadian economy, and pivot the government’s footing towards recovery planning. Again, prior to the WE issue, few doubted Morneau was the right person for the job. If in fact Morneau disclosed all of the potentially damaging facts during his FINA committee appearance, and the worst of his WE trouble is behind him, the fall economic update might just be enough to change the channel.