Tonight is the first night of the virtual Democratic nomination convention, a night when the eyes of the world were going to be turned towards US cable news channels and online to see a spectacle the likes of which we had never seen before. On nights like these, it takes a lot to break into that news cycle, let alone in relatively quiet Ottawa on a stormy evening in August. Yet tonight shortly before 7 pm EST news started to break that managed to break through, the kind of news you rarely see in our country, the kind of news that’s about as important as it can get:
The WE Scandal has taken its first casualty in the person of now-former Finance Minister Bill Morneau. He was someone who ran for office for only one apparent reason; to become Finance Minister. He clearly wasn’t a rabid politico who lived and breathed the cut and thrust of partisan politics. If anything he was more of an expert manager and in many ways, it was a role that his professional life and background trained him to take on. There was never any question regarding his qualifications to fill the role he did, even in the scandals plural that did bedevil him during his time in office.
But what he had in economic knowhow and experience, is sorely lacked in political acumen. For all the good things we can say about this generally good person, something that I haven’t heard anyone suggest he wasn’t, we cannot say that he was a natural politician or political communicator. Frankly, it came as naturally to him as trying to breath oxygen on the Moon. When the Prime Minister needed people ideas and policy communicated, it quickly became clear in the first term that Morneau wasn’t up to that job. That lead others in their cabinet like Chrystia Freeland to take those lead roles, leaving Morneau to work away quietly in the background. And for the record, none of that is to say he was a bad Finance Minister or a bad person because he’s not.
But clearly that lack of natural political sense was a blind spot that exposed him to the scandals that did eventually lead to his departure. It was the blindness to not see the political problems with taking a $40,000 vacation on WE’s dime that opened up a massive kettle of fish that brought him down now. But you can also point to his forgetfulness regarding his French Villa, the kind of thing that no Canadian or modest or normal incomes could ever relate to. To those of us in the middle class, forgetting such extravagances is unheard of, yet twice during his time in Cabinet he copped to that as if he simply forgot pocket change in the cup holders of his car.
Many other past Finance Ministers in Canadian history had a stronger grounding in the political nature of that position and likely never would have found themselves being unaware of the ethical matters that resulted in two Ethics Commissioners investigations. For all the things you could say against a Paul Martin or a Jim Flaherty, none of them would involve not seeing the political problems in forgetting about lavish gifted travel or French vacation real estate. That being said, Morneau’s own words tonight as he spoke to the press left many observers shaking their heads as he stayed true to form on his way out the door:
Sorry Mr. Morneau, we wish you the best in your next professional experience and all that good stuff, but no one is buying that there was nothing wrong here and that this had nothing to do with WE. That’s just pure balderdash. Having your Finance Minister resign at the best of times is a difficult thing, even if they announce they aren’t running again when there isn’t an election that’s imminent. Having them walk away in the middle of a global public health the likes of which we haven’t seen in 100 years, and an economic crisis the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Great Depression, is just catastrophic.
This isn’t small potatoes here folks, this is big and even with his lack of natural political astuteness, Morneau knows how important that is. So sorry, I don’t believe that this all has to do with “not running again and wanting to go run the OECD.” As Paul Wells correctly pointed out earlier this evening, even if Morneau and Trudeau had policy disagreements as the story is trying to be spun, Morneau had lost everyone it seemed and he never made a peep. He continually gave his advice, even if it was rejected, so what changed to make his desire to leave so pressing now? It’s transparently not the case that this is not about WE and claims to the contrary don’t pass the smell test.
This is seriously a problem the likes of which this PM has never faced. Going forward the Opposition will be further emboldened on the WE Scandal now that they have brought down a Finance Minister. Resignations like these rarely staunch the bleeding and this isn’t likely to either. It’s also worth pointing out now that Morneau has resigned as MP for Toronto Centre as well, he is now just a regular citizen without the protections and privileges that come with being an MP. That means that if any House of Commons committee wishes to call him before them to testify, he can’t say no. That could open this government up to further issues if the Opposition does their questioning right, which is a huge “if”.
But beyond the fallout from the WE Scandal itself here, how the Prime Minister acts going forward will take on even greater importance. Morneau was the member in his cabinet who gave him the most credibility with the business community, the kind of Bay Street cred that Mr. Trudeau simply never had. Mr. Trudeau was never seen as the fiscal expert in his cabinet, and Morneau brought him respectability in that. That’s a hugely important asset to have in the middle of a global pandemic when you’re talking about doing a major re-build of the economy of a G7 nation. The PM will need to appoint someone who is not only able to comfort Bay Street, but also doesn’t have the political blind spots Morneau that hampered him throughout his tenure.
The choice of his next Finance Minister will be the most important decision this Prime Minister in his political life and given current the stakes, his political future, short and long term, depends on getting it right. He can’t get it wrong and there will be no do-overs when it comes to this choice. Replacing an outgoing Canadian Finance Minister is a big choice at the best of times, but these aren’t the best of times. This is a decision that can and will move markets, guide investment and will be judged harshly if it’s messed up.
With Bill Morneau leaving Toronto Centre, there isn’t a better riding in the country to easily parachute a big-name candidate into. With a small geographic footprint and an unusually large number of electors regularly moving in and out of the riding itself, it’s a rare riding where having less community history doesn’t hurt. And with a history of having big name MPs like Bill Graham and Bob Rae before Mr. Morneau, there few safer Liberal seats in Canada. It would be the perfect place to drop in a certain former Bank of Canada governor who spent many years working just outside the riding on Bay Street. Who better to bring into this important role and this important time, the person who has made his professional mission over the past couple of years a green economic transition? Mark Carney’s name makes all the sense in the world and because of the stories circulating about him over the past few weeks, any name short of Carney’s will look minor league, no matter how good or deserving a choice they were.
So tonight as the fireworks start stateside at the Democratic convention start, we all go to bed with our political universe turned upside down with no clear answers as to how it will look tomorrow, let alone a week from now. We have gone from a relatively sleep mid-August evening to a seminal event for the future of not just the Liberals, but the country. Because it’s not like we don’t have anything big riding on this, like recovering from a global pandemic that’s still going with no end in sight and our economy taking serious hits across the board. For everything that he’s done, for everything that he’s promised, Justin Trudeau’s political future and legacy will be written in ink in the next couple of weeks. This resignation ensures that, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.