Finance Minister Bill Morneau was on the defensive Monday as he tried to sell good news to small business owners across Canada — all the while fending off questions about his own lingering business interests.
Morneau, who had a successful career in the pension and human resources management firm founded by his father, says he followed all advice provided to him by federal Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson after jumping into politics in 2015.
But over the weekend, The Globe and Mail reported that Morneau’s valuable shares in his family’s business have not been placed in a blind trust, and it’s unclear if they have been sold.
If neither of those things has occurred, it’s possible Morneau is keeping the shares in what is called a family trust. Neither the minister nor the ethics commissioner has provided any clarification as to their status.
The minister wasn’t in a conversational mood as he arrived on Parliament Hill on Monday, initially dodging reporters trying to ask questions about his assets.
At a news conference held in a local pizzeria a few hours later, Morneau explained that “we’ve got a system that encourages people who have done other things in life to come into public life.” The news conference was called to announce a cut to the small business income tax rate.
“I disclosed all of my assets to the ethics commissioner, I listened for what the best way to ensure that I wouldn’t have a conflict of interest would be, in her estimation, and then I moved forward and I complied with that approach to the letter,” Morneau said.
“This process includes an annual review for assets.”
If Dawson suggests a blind trust in the future, Morneau said, that’s exactly what he’ll do.
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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, also at the news conference, repeatedly took questions specifically directed at Morneau. He said Morneau “worked extensively” with Dawson to ensure his past business interests would not conflict with his work in public office, and that he “followed all her recommendations, as we expect everyone to.”
In French, Trudeau said he realizes both he and Morneau have enjoyed the advantages of personal wealth, but both feel there is an “opportunity” and an “obligation” to serve their communities.
“I am extremely proud of all the work Bill has done,” he added.
Rough few weeks
The fresh questions surrounding Morneau’s shares come on the heels of a difficult few weeks for the finance minister.
In addition to his government’s ill-fated attempts to make changes affecting taxation of private corporations (which are reportedly going to be tweaked), “early administrative confusion” apparently resulted in Morneau failing to declare a private company he owns alongside his wife in France.
That company, in turn, owns and manages Morneau’s villa in the country’s scenic Provence region.
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Global News also recently reported that Morneau’s decisions linked to tax treaties with countries like Barbados could have direct consequences for his former firm, Morneau Shepell. The minister’s office, again, maintains that Morneau has followed all the rules and all of the advice provided by the ethics commissioner.
As they made their way into and out of a special caucus meeting held on Parliament Hill Monday morning, a number of Morneau’s Liberal colleagues expressed confidence in him despite the recent headlines. Others did not answer questions shouted by reporters.
“Bill Morneau? Absolutely,” said MP Terry Beech of Burnaby, B.C.
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“I have great confidence in our finance minister and I think if you look at the performance of the economy since the last election, the first two years, I think Canadians have great confidence as well.”
Morneau’s parliamentary secretary, Joël Lightbound, simply reiterated that Morneau is “in full compliance with the ethics commissioner.”
But Conservative ethics critic Peter Kent said Morneau’s failure to disclose the company behind the villa was a “violation of straightforward requirements” and raises “serious questions.”
The NDP’s House leader, Guy Caron, also slammed Morneau for failing to employ a blind trust for his shares in Morneau Shepell.
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“The Liberals don’t seem interested in following their own code of ethics,” Caron said in French during Question Period. “The question is, why aren’t they even able to follow basic common sense?”