Opinion: Trust in Morneau is falling during a very important time

A finance minister should always be beyond reproach, but never more so than during an economic crisis.

Integrity is one of those crucial ingredients in managing an economic disaster — especially when financial markets are in turmoil, businesses are on the brink and billions of dollars are being approved in double time to buoy up collapsing bank accounts.

So the ethics commissioner’s decision on Thursday to investigate Finance Minister Bill Morneau for his involvement in approving a $43.5-million contract to WE Charity is disturbing.

Morneau and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have both apologized for not recusing themselves from the decision-making process around hiring the WE charity to administer $900 million in funding for student volunteers, but Morneau has yet to appear in public or take any questions about his participation in the contract.

That’s a shame, because his terse and narrow apology left a lot unexplained.

It also clearly wasn’t sufficient for either the official Opposition or federal ethics commissioner Mario Dion, who has now announced he will examine whether Morneau broke the Conflict of Interest Act.

Normal procedure suggests Morneau was probably involved more than once in the process to choose WE Charity — at least one cabinet committee discussion, at least one full cabinet meeting, and then in signing off on the final amount of money involved.

That’s despite two of his children having close ties to the organization — daughter Grace Acan works with the charity, and daughter Clare Morneau has appeared at WE Day events and had her book blurbed by co-founder Marc Kielburger.

What’s particularly disturbing during an economic crisis is that Morneau didn’t see anything wrong in being so close to the process, a lapse in judgment that throws into question whose interests he has at heart when he is deciding on all those other programs that are keeping the economy afloat these days.

There is no question that those programs are essential in tiding over individuals and businesses alike until the times improve.

But the recovery is not just about money. It’s also about confidence, especially confidence in the people who are handing out the money.

The Bank of Canada pointed out earlier this week that even as companies are able to rev up production again and retail outlets can open their doors, there’s no guarantee their customers will return.

They’re stymied by fear of catching coronavirus, afraid of losing their jobs, and confidence among both businesses and consumers has plunged.

Without confidence, investment decisions will be put on hold or scaled back, and purchases put over for another day, prompting shaky businesses to shut down and prolonging the recovery.

Obviously, consumers and businesses are not thinking about Morneau, WE Charity or the minister’s daughters when they are deciding on a day-to-day basis whether to venture outside and risk economic activity. Let’s not exaggerate.

But at a time when the federal government is running up a deficit of $343 billion and counting, and about to make key decisions on how to spend $82 billion in wage subsidies, how to scale back emergency benefits going to millions of people, and how to modulate the recovery so that it’s safe, we need to have faith that Morneau is thinking straight.

Indeed, when Trudeau apologized for not recusing himself earlier this week, he accompanied the apology with a teaser about a $50-billion increase in the wage subsidy.

On Thursday, just minutes before the committee grilling of the Liberals on the WE Charity contract began, Trudeau announced $20 billion for the provinces to spend on restarting their economy.

This is big money swirling around, and many of the regular checks and balances on spending have been jettisoned in the name of helping desperate people and precarious businesses right away, without being hampered by red tape.

That’s all quite logical if you can be assured that the priorities of the decision-makers are aligned with those people and businesses.

But we need that assurance.

And, of course, Morneau has been in trouble with the ethics commissioner before. In November 2017, he had to pay a $200 fine for failing to declare that he owned a villa and a corporation in France.

He also came under opposition fire for selling off his shares in his family business, Morneau Shepell, just before proposing changes to the tax rules.

At the time, the Conservatives called for his head and he faced months of badgering by the small business lobby and opposition MPs alike.

Under siege, the prime minister defended his finance minister’s integrity. Morneau not only survived in the job, but even returned to the finance portfolio after the election.

But on Thursday, the prime minister was not really available to come to Morneau’s defence, since Trudeau himself is facing the same question as Morneau for his handling of the WE Charity contract: What on earth were they thinking?

Instead, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland took the very odd step of coming to Trudeau’s aid, volunteering at a news conference that she still had complete confidence in the prime minister.

Freeland also said the entire cabinet wore the WE Charity fiasco and apologized on behalf of everyone.

But she had nothing to say about Morneau.

Heather Scoffield is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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