We can certainly thank Bill Morneau for a lot of things he did as finance minister.
He made inclusive growth the centrepiece of his fiscal policy, focusing not just on how the Canadian economy could grow but also pushing, slowly but surely, for a more equal distribution of our collective riches.
Under Morneau’s watch, gender analysis was entrenched into budget-making, forcing all policy-makers to calculate the pros and cons for women in every decision they took.
And more recently, the federal government’s willingness to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in cushioning the blow of the pandemic shutdown has meant the difference between poverty and getting by for many millions of people.
Those policies were hard work, and Morneau was central to all of them.
But he did the right thing in the handing of his resignation on Monday.
As the minister told a news conference after meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, “like any job, there’s a time when you’re the appropriate person in the role and a time when you have to decide you’re not the appropriate person in the role.”
His official explanation of why he was suddenly, at 7:30 on Monday night, no longer the appropriate person – he never had any intention of sticking around for the long run, and the prime minister needs someone stable by his side – beggars belief. But his time had definitely come.
The ethical conundrum caused by his granting of government funding to the very charity that employs his daughter, flew his family to Africa and Central America, and received $100,000 in recent donations from his wife was only the last straw. Forgetting to repay WE Charity $41,000 for personal travel was too much to ask an already-leery caucus to explain on his behalf when the next campaign rolls around.
Morneau had already weakened his own standing by his mishandling of the small-business tax reforms of 2017, and by running afoul of the ethics commissioner before. A harsh ruling expected this year about the WE Charity affair would only have made a bad situation worse.
But there’s more to the resignation than that. The past few weeks of WE Charity controversy have drawn Morneau detractors out of the woodwork, to the point where public confidence in the finance minister was deteriorating at a very crucial time. Tales of conflict and policy-making dysfunction flew thick.
Under Trudeau, the finance minister needs to be intimately involved in federal-provincial relations in order to deliver many of the Liberals’ election promises. The finance minister needs to be able to deal with the business community and have solid dealings with Bay Street. The minister needs to have a range of allies and friends in the caucus and the cabinet to make fiscal responsibility a central tenet in policy-making.
All of these relationships require that the public, the caucus, the opposition and the business community have the utmost respect of the finance minister, with the knowledge that the prime minister has his back at all times.
Trudeau’s silence and then his awkward statement of support for Morneau spoke so loudly as to suggest that that confidence was too thin to last – especially with so many momentous decisions around fiscal policy on the horizon.
The Liberals need to decide in the next couple of months how they will guide the economy towards recovery from the deepest recession in memory, how they will control their spending at the same time, and how they will make good on their commitment to inclusive growth even as the pandemic hits the most vulnerable populations the hardest.
It’s a puzzle that will require not only the full confidence of the prime minister, but also someone who understands deeply what the pandemic has done to women caring for children and trying to work from home, who can balance fiscal responsibility over the long term with compassion for those hurting today.
Perhaps it’s time for a woman.
Heather Scoffield is a columnist for Torstar Syndication Services.