Morneau could well be toast

, , Comments Off on Morneau could well be toast

What started out as a potential logistical glitch in the speedy rollout of government COVID-based aid is turning into a massive headache that could cause permanent damage to the government.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on July 27, 2020.

OTTAWA—By the time this column is published, Finance Minister Bill Morneau could well be toast.

In the best-case scenario, he will have decided to step aside and take one for the team.

What started out as a potential logistical glitch in the speedy rollout of government COVID-based aid is turning into a massive headache that could cause permanent damage to the government.

In a minority situation, the Liberals are not in a position to tough it out, as they did during the Jody Wilson-Raybould debacle.

The opposition parties are hungry for a trophy, the resignation of a senior, high-profile minister.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the finance minister tried to contain the damage by apologizing for their clumsy refusal to recuse themselves from the cabinet vote on a sole-source management contract for the WE Charity, notwithstanding their families’ ties with the company.

The recusal question did not stir much public interest. Most Canadians do not understand the arcane rules of government operations and couldn’t care less about recusals.

But the same cannot be said for free trips.

The revelation late last week that Morneau and his family joined two WE-sponsored fact-finding trips as potential donors would have been fine in the private sector.

As a government minister, it is a no-no. Morneau must be very regretful of his decision to voyage with WE in 2017.

But he also knows that the rules that apply in the private sector do not pass the smell test in politics.

Take the issue of speakers’ fees. One of the most vociferous critics of the so-called WE scandal is journalist Andrew Coyne. He recently wrote a column calling the situation a “a rat’s nest of mutually beneficial relationships between the Liberals, the Trudeau family and WE.”

The only involvement of the Trudeau family was speech payments.

The $312,000 for Margaret Trudeau sounds staggering to the ordinary citizen.

But that was for 28 events.

According to Speakers’ Spotlight, they advertise speaker fees between $5,000 and $10,000.

But Margaret Trudeau was paid an average of $11,142 per appearance.

The payment is certainly in the ballpark of what constitutes standard rates for Canadian celebrity speakers.

The WE exposé started as a front-page news story on speakers’ fees, but that narrative did not appear to stir up public anger.

The fateful family trip on the WE dime served to elevate this saga from a summer blip to a full-blown crisis.

Morneau will shortly be facing a resolution which could confirm that he has lost the confidence of the House of Commons. The Conservatives have made it very clear they want his head.

More information on the details of WE voyages and the confusion around who was paying for them will be continual, featured fodder for the opposition parties.

Even as Morneau claimed he paid for the trips but mislaid his receipts, WE officials were issuing a statement saying they regularly offered free trips to potential donors in the hopes of securing ongoing financial support.

The Morneau family followed up their experience with a donation of $50,000 to WE International work and a second $50,000 pandemic support cheque in June. The 2017 trips were obviously not an attempt to get something for nothing.

But it certainly throws doubt on the finance minister’s capacity to deal objectively with funding decisions that involve WE.

This is not the first time the minister has suffered a lapse in judgment concerning government reporting rules.

His failure to include a family home in France in his parliamentary declaration was another mistake for which he apologized and pleaded no malicious intent.

Morneau survived that mistake relatively unscathed, but the increasing number of complaints about his family relationships with WE are too numerous to ignore.

Trudeau and his team will have to move quickly to staunch the bloodletting on this issue. That leaves few options beyond convincing the finance minister to step aside.

Morneau would do everyone a favour if he decided to take one for the team.

It may not be fair, but in the world of politics, this growing problem will not go away until a senior member of the government pays a heavy price by resigning.

The firing of a finance minister would cause turmoil in markets during a time when Canada cannot avoid more financial hits.

But a personal decision to step aside would help the government and restore Morneau’s personal reputation.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.