National Column: Morneau capital runs low

by Chantal Hebert

Finance Minister Bill Morneau is headed back to the House of Commons on Monday with a target on his back and much of the burden of his government’s declining popularity on his shoulders.

On Friday, an Angus Reid poll on voting intentions confirmed the ongoing erosion of Liberal support. It is no accident that Justin Trudeau’s government’s midterm slump comes at a time when Morneau is taking a prolonged public relations beating over his plan to tighten the rules that govern private corporations.

Over the past two years, other ministers have been left twisting in the wind as a result of poorly conceived and/or poorly executed policies without the government taking a corresponding hit in voting intentions.

Think of ex-democratic reform minister Maryam Monsef’s electoral reform fiasco or, more recently, of House leader Bardish Chagger having to walk back her talk about overhauling the rules of the Commons.

But when it is the finance minister who is being wounded in battle day in and day out, it is the government’s core managerial reputation that takes a licking.

For if politics were a game of chess, the finance minister would be one of two pieces – the other being the prime minister – that is not disposable, or at least not at less than prohibitive cost.

Morneau cannot be shuffled off to some other portfolio or quit without the move sending a loud signal that something big is amiss within the government.

Liberal strategists are hoping the imminent release of a revised set of proposals for private corporation taxation rules will take the pressure off the finance minister. There is a fiscal update in the pipeline that will feature some better-than-expected economic numbers.

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The remainder of the fall sitting should also see the nomination of a new chief justice for the Supreme Court.

Who knows, a government in search of diversions may get around to filling some of the many vacant parliamentary watchdog posts.

Morneau’s team has been shored up. Senior PMO adviser Justin To has moved to the finance minister’s office. Former broadcaster Ben Chin, who most recently was in charge of communications for former B.C. premier Christy Clark, has joined his inner circle.

A special “mandatory” Liberal caucus meeting featuring a briefing by the finance minister has been called for Monday morning.

But whether a rewritten policy, a bolstered palace guard and new marching orders for a nervous government caucus will reverse the tide or just make things worse, remains to be seen. In politics, the line between healthy flexibility and weak-kneed vacillation is a thin one.

At this juncture, the public perception is that Morneau is beating a retreat under his critics’ fire either out of lack of fortitude and/or lack of fiscal foresight.

For the many Canadians who actually back his tax reform, the minister’s increasingly apologetic tone is not conducive to confidence. Ditto, of course, for those incensed by his initial proposals.

Whispers that Morneau is already disillusioned with politics have not helped. Nor does speculation that Trudeau could kill two birds with one stone by promoting Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains – who like incoming NDP leader Jagmeet Singh is a Sikh – to the finance post.

In the circumstances, the news reported by the CBC on Friday that Morneau omitted to disclose the private company that owns his villa in Provence for the better part of two years could not have come at a worse time.

It is unlikely to cause him lasting ethics-related wounds, but raising the existence of the villa itself will reinforce the opposition narrative that the minister is a wealthy political dilettante who is out of touch with the reality of ordinary Canadians.

At this juncture, it is hard to see a probable scenario that would not have Morneau emerge from the fall’s travails as, if not a spent force, at least a weaker one.

He is hardly the first finance minister to be forced to change tack on a policy. In their days in the finance hot seat, Ralph Goodale and Jim Flaherty had to scramble to avoid the demise of their respective minority governments. But both were seasoned politicians, well-versed in the cut and thrust of partisan duels.

Morneau is the first parliamentary rookie to hold the post of finance minister in modern federal history. Two years ago there were questions as to the wisdom of appointing an untested politician to the second-most-powerful post in the government. The jury is just about no longer out on that.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer.
Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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