Blue-blood finance minister merely adds to class struggle theme consuming Parliament

0 Comments 03 January 2018

As long as Bill Morneau is holding the reins at finance, the questions about his personal wealth and (now divested) family earnings will keep coming. The minister is a moving target for the Conservatives and the NDP.


Published on Monday, December 4, 2017 in The Hill Times.

OTTAWA—The Conservative Party may have gone too far in fanning finance disclosure flames last week.

But the Tories certainly threw the government off-message on the messy issue of Morneau money.

By calling for the resignation of Finance Minister Bill Morneau, Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer was vaulted to the front of the news cycle during a time when the Liberals were hoping for potential positive coverage.

By suggesting that Morneau benefitted from insider knowledge when he sold family shares, finance critic Pierre Poilievre ventured dangerously close to libel territory.

He must have been betting that Morneau would be loathe to proceed with legal action when a suit would simply spawn more negative media.

Poilievre, an expert in precisely worded prevarication, was careful not to repeat his allegations outside the House. But he did manage to keep the questions coming about the personal financial situation of the minister.

These interventions achieved precisely what the Conservative Party was seeking, an opportunity to keep the Morneau money story from going away.

The New Democratic Party moved away from personal attacks on the minister’s family wealth, but it is still pursuing the potential for conflict in financial decision-making.

No one, not even the Conservatives, really believe that Morneau got into politics in order to fatten his own wallet.

If anything, the revelations of family wealth on both sides make it patently clear that the minister actually stands to lose significantly by choosing public service over private gain.

Morneau was informed by the conflict of interest commissioner of the actions to take to when he became a minister. He followed her advice, and when that changed, he followed it again. He donated $5-million of his own money to assuage any notion of benefit from family share increases during his time in office.

We cannot set the bar so high for public life that no one in their right mind would accept the challenge.

At the same time, Morneau knows that his agenda, and that of the government, has been thrown off course because of these distractions.

Just last week, a historic apology by the prime minster to all members of the LGBT community had to compete with finance questions still dogging the minister.

Justin Trudeau’s statement to a packed House, brought tears to many eyes, including his own, when he said sorry for the “state-sponsored systematic oppression and rejection.”

Across the country, the message resonated positively, not just with gay and lesbian voters, but with all those who believe that the country’s quest for true equality involves everyone.

However, the moment was overshadowed by more discussion surrounding the tax system.

Just as the Conservatives launched their salvo to muddy the message, news emerged about a new Canada postal code Ministry of Revenue purge.

Based on documents obtained from access the information, the CBC reported the CRA was targeting five rich neighbourhoods to find out whether people were living above their tax-reported means.

According to the CBC, 30 households in those neighbourhoods have already been called to discuss their visible wealth. It remains to be seen what those conversations will lead to.

By targeting tony neighbourhoods, CRA reinforces the notion of widespread cheating amongst rich people.

Unfortunately, that was the same message the finance department peddled when it was trying to change the laws on incorporation. Alienation simply grows when citizens believe that rich people cheat.

That may fit nicely into the middle class narrative that propelled the Liberals to victory two years ago. But fomenting class struggle is not a winning long-term strategy.

Changing the law to prevent offshore tax avoidance would be much more lucrative than sending tax police to root around in neighbourhoods looking for evidence of undeclared income.

The CRA is just doing its job, but the loophole on offshore accounts needs to be closed.

Until it is, notwithstanding the Paradise Papers rollout, any Canadian who is legally investing offshore is completely within their rights.

Meanwhile, having a blue-blood as minister of finance, is merely adding to the class struggle theme that seems to be consuming this Parliament.

As long as Morneau is holding the reins at finance, the questions about his personal wealth and (now divested) family earnings will keep coming. The minister is a moving target for the Conservatives and the NDP.

Diversionary discussions are a distraction the government cannot afford, if it intends to promote the message of middle-class fairness.

Politics is about staying on message. With a weekly finance sideshow, that is becoming increasingly difficult.


Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.

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© 2018 Sheila Copps.