by Tim Harper
It was merely a matter of time before someone in Justin Trudeau’s picture-perfect, properly balanced cabinet – a collection of the celebrated, the cerebral and the politically untested – was going to have to show their mettle with their finger stuck in a light socket.
Bill Morneau, c’mon down.
Morneau, the Bay Street veteran, carries with him a very hefty, very impressive resumÈ, but when handed the finance portfolio the resumÈ was light on two categories: experience in politics and at the casino.
From town hall meeting to parliamentary committee this week, Morneau has made it clear he is going to roll the dice. He and his boss are all in, deficits be damned. They will double down on the 10th race even if their horse hadn’t come in for the first nine.
From tripling his initial budgetary deficit to promising to balance that budget – somewhere, perhaps, over the rainbow – but not by the end of the initial mandate, Morneau is now being circled by Conservative opponents who smell blood.
It’s a month before his first budget and he’s becoming a question period pinata and is learning quickly that bad days in politics will find you even if you honestly believe that black cloud has no business hovering over you. There are two very different things at play here: the fiscal and the political.
There’s a broken campaign promise and we’ve already seen that Trudeau promises can be ironclad (CF-18s out of the anti-ISIS effort), malleable (Syrian refugee targets), and breakable ($10-billion deficits and
a balanced budget this mandate). Morneau is doing everything he can on the fiscal front because he has been handed a pile of dirt and is trying to grow something green.
But he has a habit of relying too heavily on talking points and we’ve heard two days of prudence, volatility, investments, not spending, growing the economy, transparency and accountability.
Monday, he likened the deficit to a huge snowfall in which the help of a couple of altruistic teens down the road would be needed to push the Liberal bus out of the snowbank.
Tuesday, at committee, when challenged by Conservative critic Lisa Raitt, he lapsed into a story of a two-income family in which one works 12 months, the other six months, and . . . well, it had everyone at the media table shaking their heads when he finished.
But, here’s the thing. Maybe this hand-wringing and chest-beating about deficits is an Ottawa thing and an old Ottawa thing at that.
Maybe all the noise over this doesn’t go much beyond the Commons chamber, committee meeting rooms and pundits on deadline.
Maybe the voters who shrugged at the Liberal pledge to run deficits during the campaign, don’t care about the size of the first deficit and maybe it’s a generational thing and they never bought in to the old
orthodoxy and the phoney Conservative balanced budget bill because if they are young, with children, and in the housing market in a large Canadian city they already know about running deficits.
Maybe, just maybe, voters just want this new government to do whatever it can to fix some bridges, improve their daily transit commutes and help them find jobs. They’ll worry about government deficits later.
“The first and right priority for Canadians is to invest in our economy,” Morneau said Tuesday.
He may be right and he may have the backing of voters, but he and Trudeau must also cobble together a plan beyond doubling down on the first budget when they have the political capital.
Without that plan, Conservatives are going to continue to swarm the minister. And Canadians will rightly demand more.
This may look like a rough patch for Morneau right now but there were always questions about handing the key economic portfolio to someone who had never stood in a legislature before. It has been a century since a job of such magnitude had been given to a political rookie.
As one MP reminded me Tuesday: “He’s had to learn to be an MP and a finance minister at the same time.”
Trudeau took a chance on Morneau and now both are taking a chance on the economy.
Here’s their bet – when it looks like you’re down, you’ve got to spend more to get up. It might sound like a risky economic wager, but they may quite properly be betting that Canadians get it.
Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services