National Column: Right, not fast, is the principle

by Paul Wells

Bill Morneau works in a building named after Jim Flaherty. No pressure there. The very walls seem to ask why Morneau, a political rookie whose adult life before politics was spent in some fairly cushy corporate precincts, can’t seem to display the offhand charm and crusty wit of his late Conservative predecessor.

If the walls don’t ask the question, reporters sometimes do, so the finance minister sought to pre-empt any such charge from me by asking a few of his own questions about how I think he’s doing as a communicator. Not great, I said. But whatever – the work is the message, and if Canadians judge Morneau’s budgets persuasive they won’t mind the occasional freshman jitters.

With that, Morneau’s press secretary urged us to get on to the issue of the day, which was the day after Morneau’s second budget. What does he want Canadians to know about the thing, I asked.

“What I’m trying to communicate is that it’s a plan,” he said. “Budget 2017 is Chapter 2 of a book that’s going to have, I hope, many chapters.”

This is Morneau’s response to the charge that his second budget barely touched the spending tracks laid out in the first. Sure, he said, but that’s because he still thinks the first budget set the right directions. “The starting point . . . is dealing with middle-class anxiety. That was absolutely the frame we came in (with). It’s the right thing to be focused on because that is the core of building confidence. And it’s not possible to have a long-term vision if you don’t have people who are confidently able to aspire to . . . exciting jobs.”

And the government’s efforts are bearing fruit, he said. “I don’t think people can dispute that it’s having some impact. Economists won’t dispute it, because they’ll see that the Canada Child Benefit is actually having an impact in terms of what we’re seeing in discretionary consumer spending. And the job growth – well, there are multiple reasons why we’re seeing job growth, but one of them certainly has to do with confidence. It prepares us for the next steps.”

They’re baby steps, though, given the sluggish pace of economic growth and the uncertainty around Donald Trump’s plans. “Is it always going to be as fast as we might want? No. You have two alternatives: Doing it right and doing it fast. We’re determined to do it right.”

How much has Trump changed the government’s plans? How much of this budget is different from what Morneau would have done if Hillary Clinton had been elected president?

He paused, inspecting the question as if looking for a wire he could cut on its surface somewhere to disarm it. “The overwhelming majority of things we’re looking at (are) Canadian issues on how we can improve our Canadian economy,” he said at last. “The fact that we need to have really strong trading relationships is obvious. So the fact that we need to engage with the United States, with the new administration, I think is evident to every Canadian.” This part of Morneau’s answer paraphrases Justin Trudeau’s “We’re Canadians; we can get along with anyone” response to Trump’s election.

The rest of his answer suggests that very little in this budget is specific to the current highly peculiar political moment. Canada should be doing what Canada should always be doing, Morneau said in effect.

“The reality that we’re always going to have something around the corner that we don’t know – that is always going to be the case. If you ask me, what do I worry most about as finance minister? I worry about the stuff that I don’t know about. I worry about the thing that we need to be prepared for, what is coming down the pike. Because we need to be resilient in the face of those potential challenges. And I think our plan is doing exactly that.

“We’re planning in a way that helps Canadians feel better, that helps them reach for the brass ring, which they need to do. For entrepreneurs to be confident, that’s really important. For people to be confident that they can go out and take the jobs. For people in university to be confident that Canada is a place where they can have a successful career – that’s all really important.”

Our discussion, like the budget, didn’t have a lot of numbers in it.

Morneau in an interview is more relaxed and engaging than in question period. His handlers should let him out more. It couldn’t hurt.

Paul Wells is a national affairs writer. His column appears Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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