National Column: Judge Morneau for what he does, not what he owns

by Thomas Walkom

Like all politicians, Finance Minister Bill Morneau deserves to be judged.

Elected legislators – particularly those appointed to cabinet – have a responsibility to voters. It makes sense that those voters keep an eye on them.

Morneau is no exception.

But if he is to be judged it should be for what he does, not what he owns.

Morneau owns a lot. He comes from a wealthy family and married into wealth. He took over the pension consulting firm that his father founded and made even more money.

He is pretty well fixed.

In fact, he is so well fixed that, in an effort to deflect opposition criticism, he has offered to donate to charity the proceeds – estimated at more than $5 million – from selling shares of the family business.

There are not many Canadians rich enough to casually give away $5 million.

All of this matters because Liberal Morneau now stands accused by the Conservative and New
Democratic Party opposition of conflict of interest.

The New Democrats in particular say Morneau should not have introduced pension Bill C-27 when he still controlled shares in the family-owned consulting firm. That firm, Morneau Shepell, might get more business as a result of the bill, which would create a new category of so-called targeted benefit pensions to help federally regulated companies off-load more of their retirement costs on workers.

It’s a bad bill. But I’ll get to that later.

Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson is seized of the conflict of interest issue. Presumably there will be a ruling.

I confess I don’t understand Ottawa’s conflict of interest rules. Ministers are urged to put their holdings in blind trusts (Morneau didn’t do so initially). But even if they don’t have day-to-day control over their assets in such trusts, they must know – in a general sense – which ones will benefit from specific government actions.

Corporate tax cuts, for instance, favour corporations. A finance minister holding corporate stock – whether in a blind trust or not – would presumably know that.

Similarly, pension reform favours pension consultants. Even if he had held his Morneau Shepell shares in a blind trust, the current finance minister would have known that as well.

But I suspect the real rap against Morneau is not that he is in a conflict of interest. It is that he is rich.

“He (Morneau) is the very definition of the privileged few, the old-money elite who have taken
generational wealth handed down from those who came before,” Conservative finance critic Pierre
Poilievre said scornfully in the Commons last week.

It’s odd to hear a Conservative chide someone for being a member of the ruling class. Following
Poilievre’s logic, we could have a rule barring moneyed people from the finance portfolio. But historically few ministers, including Conservative ones, would have made the cut.

The most reasonable way to evaluate finance ministers is not by their class background but by what they do. Former Liberal finance minister Paul Martin, for instance, should be remembered not for his personal wealth or his considerable charm but for destroying Canada’s social safety net in an effort to curb the fiscal deficit.

Conservative Jim Flaherty should be remembered not as a well-to-do lawyer but as the finance minister who deliberately – and counterintuitively – ran big deficits to pull the country from recession.

How should Morneau be remembered? He stickhandled an important new child benefit scheme through the Commons and persuaded his provincial counterparts to expand the Canada Pension Plan. Those are rare accomplishments.

Conversely, his Bill C-27 – by making it easier for federally regulated companies to back away from reliable, defined-benefit pension plans – is a step backward.

His tax reform attempts have largely failed. His innovation agenda sounds like – and may well be – gobbledygook.

But his insouciance about running fiscal deficits is a welcome change from the knee-jerk reaction expressed by most finance ministers when expenses exceed revenues.

Oh yes. And he is rich as sin. But that in itself shouldn’t matter much.

Thomas Walkom appears Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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