Bill Morneau’s Indelicate Exit

Justin Trudeau’s only finance minister in five years leaves politics amid a pandemic recession.

L. Ian MacDonald

August 18, 2020

It was clear there was something seriously amiss between Justin Trudeau and Bill Morneau last week when the Prime Minister’s Office took the extraordinary step of putting out a statement that the PM had full confidence in the finance minister. This followed a Globe and Mail report that Trudeau was uncertain, according to PMO insiders, whether Morneau was the right person to “steer the country into a post-pandemic recovery.”

Never in living memory has PMO ever put out such a statement. You simply can’t imagine the PMO of Brian Mulroney ever putting out a damning-with-faint-praise statement that Don Mazankowski, or Michael Wilson before him, enjoyed the PM’s confidence as finance minister. Either one would have resigned on the spot.

And this was during some hard times, of record interest rates to tame inflation in the late 1980s—the bank rate was 12.4 percent in 1989, while huge deficits and stimulative spending marked the deep recession of 1990-91. Wilson was finance minister the whole time, from 1984-91.

Mazankowski, minister from 1991-93, presided over the so-called “jobless recovery” of 1992. No finance minister has ever been undermined in the cavalier manner in which Trudeau and his office have treated Morneau in the last week.

So, it was no great surprise when Morneau told the country Monday evening. “I will be stepping down as finance minister, and as member of Parliament for Toronto Centre.” Effective immediately.

After less than two terms, and only five years in the House, Morneau won’t even receive a parliamentary pension, the minimum term of service being six years. Not that Morneau needs the money, not at all.

To say that he is independently wealthy is to understate the case. After the Liberals first took office in November 2015, Morneau sold about $20 million in shares from Morneau-Shepell Inc., his family’s financial and estate firm. But he continued to draw $65,000 a month in dividends from his remaining shares, until reporter David Akin broke the story in 2017 he was receiving money from a firm in an industry regulated by his ministry. He sold the one million shares and donated the profit to charity, putting the rest of his holdings in a blind trust, as he should have done the day he took office.

Then it developed that Morneau had neglected to declare his villa in the south of France, co-owned with his wife Nancy McCain Morneau of the New Brunswick McCains. No tag days for them, either.

Then it turned out last month that WE Charity — embroiled in a conflict-of-interest controversy for landing a $43 million contract from the Trudeau government after having paid both Margaret and Sacha Trudeau for speeches and appearances — had neglected to invoice Morneau for accommodations on two family visits to WE education camps in Africa and Central America, in addition to travel costs he had covered. When Morneau finally learned this in preparation for his appearance at the Commons finance committee, he wrote a cheque to WE for $41,000 on the morning of his appearance. And it was when he voluntarily divulged this in his opening statement that all hell broke loose.

Morneau says he is resigning now to devote his full time to a bid to become Secretary General of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the economic think tank of developed economies that serves as a de facto member of the G7 and G20 groupings. It was led from 1996-2006 by former Pierre Trudeau minister Don Johnston. The younger Trudeau’s statement Monday announced his full support for Morneau. Again, not that he needs the money, but it would be something interesting to do. But the fact remains that Morneau is resigning as the finance minister of a G7 country in the midst of the greatest financial crisis in a century.

Meanwhile, Trudeau needs a finance minister, before markets close on Tuesday. He shouldn’t look beyond the deputy PM, Chrystia Freeland, the smartest person in any room. In the pandemic, she has been chief operating officer with the provinces, and put the Trump administration on notice about its bully-boy trade tariffs on aluminum. Don’t mess with this girl, Donald. She’s worked all over the world in the upper echelons of financial and business journalism, and she’s tournament tough. She could continue doing all of that from Finance, not to mention raising three kids.

Easy call, Prime Minister.

L. Ian MacDonald is Editor and Publisher of Policy Magazine.