National Column: Return of the ‘Nervous Nellies’

by Chantal Hebert

It may not feel that way now, but the high-pitched political debate over Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s tax changes to private corporations will likely end with proposals that could have both the Conservatives and the Liberals claiming victory.

By all indications, the government will try to salvage enough of its current plan to say with a more or less straight face that it has fought the good fight for tax fairness while taking care to minimize unintended collateral damage.

The Conservative opposition will likely be able to claim that it has saved Canada’s family farms or some other section of the economy from fiscal Armageddon.

One way or another, the moment this issue is put to rest cannot come a day too soon for Morneau.

Win or lose, he will walk away wounded from his first real hand-to-hand parliamentary combat and not just as a result of opposition hits.

The word “beleaguered” has come up in various independent depictions of Morneau’s parliamentary demeanour over the course of the fiscal reform storm and it does capture best the minister’s body language as he fends off opposition critics in question period.

Since the House reopened, the talking points he has offered in (limp) defence of his reform could not be described as particularly combative. If anything, Morneau’s main mission seems to boil down to holding the line while the government regroups.

And yet his plan does not lack for allies in civil society. They range from distinguished academics to entrepreneurs, progressive think-thanks and more than a few lawyers and doctors adamant that, on this matter, their professional associations are not reflecting their views.

But one would never know of their existence based on the generic lines the minister has relied on in question period.

Morneau’s tour of duty in the question period hot seat has been lonesome in more ways than one.

Some time ago, the Liberals decided they would contribute to the decorum of question period by holding their applause. The Conservatives and the New Democrats have made no such commitment.

For the past two weeks, question period watchers have been treated to the sight of pumped up Conservative MPs cheering on leader Andrew Scheer and others as they launch verbal grenades at the Liberals from the fiscal reform barricades.

By comparison, Morneau’s answers, usually delivered amidst much opposition heckling, are punctuated by eerie silence from his own benches. If the Liberals were to resume applauding their own, it is an open question how many of

them would do so in support of the finance minister.

It is said that there are more government MPs who oppose the changes than the small number that have spoken out against them. Quoting anonymous sources, La Presse reported Thursday that some Liberals are covertly encouraging the Conservatives to keep putting the heat on their ministerial colleague.

It was Jean ChrÈtien who coined the terms “nervous Nellies” to describe the tendency of a good many Liberal MPs to be spooked by the first sign of political adversity.

At the time, he was referring to those who were questioning his leadership in the face of the pre-election polls that showed the Conservatives under Kim Campbell to have overtaken the Liberals in voting intentions. (That took place a few months before ChrÈtien reduced the Tories to two seats in the 1993 election.)

This is the first time the 2015 class of Liberal MPs is getting some serious pushback on a fiscal policy. Some of its members are running for cover even as their leader remains far more popular than his rivals, when their party is as competitive in voting intentions as it was on the day of its majority victory two years ago.

The tax reform they are distancing themselves from did not come out of left field; it was part of the last Liberal budget.

Even in their current form, the changes would affect a small minority of taxpayers.

Watching Trudeau’s Liberals squirm in their seats as Morneau comes under opposition fire, one can’t help but spare a thought for the fortitude of the Mulroney MPs who steadfastly stood by their unpopular Tory government at the time of the GST debate.

Copyright 2017 and distributed by Torstar Syndication Services

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