Morneau-Trudeau was no Martin-Chrétien

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Bill Morneau was never after Justin Trudeau’s job. From the beginning, Morneau seemed ill at ease with the thrust and parry of political life.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on August 24, 2020.

OTTAWA—Bill Morneau is a class act. In what must have been an excruciatingly painful press conference, he explained his departure without rancour or bitterness.

The lines may have sounded a little rehearsed, as they reinforced a notion that nobody really believed. But he came across as a person at peace with his decision and ready to move on to the next phase of his public life.

In the short term, the campaign to become secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development will be all-consuming. However, his chances of success are slim. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to campaign vigorously on Morneau’s behalf, but he will have his hands full managing the domestic agenda.

If prorogation results in a non-confidence motion defeat, the country will soon be plunged into a mid-pandemic election. Navigating the challenges of either an election or a continuing minority parliament will preclude the leader from international glad-handing. Given the experience of the Security Council defeat, it may not help.

International nominations are also guided by the mundane world of politics, factoring in regional representation and diversity. Canada has already held the OECD top job, during a ten-year stint by an affable ex-cabinet minister in the former Trudeau government, Donald Johnston. Since the creation of the organization in 1961, there have only been five secretaries-general. He was the fourth. Many other countries will be clamouring for their turn at the wheel, so the chance of second Canadian pick is slim.

Trudeau and Morneau must have known that when they tried to explain to the nation that international ambition was driving the departure of a finance minister in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. The OECD sideline was an elegant, though implausible, way of positioning Morneau’s departure. It gave the finance minister a reason to leave in haste with his head held high and it gave Trudeau a reason to say how much he supported his finance minister. Both knew neither to be true.

Pundits were comparing the Trudeau/Morneau split with the final years of acrimony between Jean Chretien and Paul Martin. But nothing could be further from the truth. CBC pundit David Herle, who is still carrying the torch for his former boss and mentor Martin, pronounced aggrievedly on television last week that his boss found out about his firing on the radio.

On the face of it, that sounds horribly unfair. But Herle neglected to mention the events leading to his boss’s radio shocker. Martin had been working for months to force Chretien’s hand and secure his retirement. He had a plan in place to announce his resignation from finance at a major International Monetary Fund conference meeting on Monday. The previous Friday he had publicly suggested that he was reviewing his options.

The intention was to throw the markets into turmoil and cause the dollar to plummet, leaving Chretien no choice but to step down. Shredders were already deployed at the finance department, with Martin staffers working overtime to destroy his personal papers. When Chretien found out, he called an emergency Sunday cabinet meeting, seeking support to pre-emptively remove Martin that evening, in favour of another financial stalwart, John Manley. The markets barely moved, and Martin’s Monday massacre was pre-emptively thwarted.

The difference between last week’s scenario and previous warring Liberal prime and finance ministers was that Morneau was never after Trudeau’s job. He had no interest in running for prime minister and was sincerely interested in politics to simply make a difference. Previous battles between Prime Ministers Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chretien, and their respective finance ministers, involved staring down adversaries who were trying to replace them. Morneau had no intention of running for prime minister.

As for public life, he certainly did not need the money, or the notoriety. Putting his business on hold meant financial sacrifice for the whole Morneau family. But from the beginning, Morneau seemed ill at ease with the thrust and parry of political life. His earnest attempt to tighten up tax loopholes backfired when he referred to certain tax incentives as “dead money.” That description would not have lifted an eyebrow on Bay Street, but it landed with a thud on Main Street.

At the end of the day, Morneau was a good man who had much to contribute to public life. His Bay Street background distanced him from the norms that govern the rest of us. That was ultimately his downfall.

As Morneau learned, Bay Street and Main Street are very different parts of town.

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