At least Trudeau didn’t elbow anyone in the boob this time

Finance Minister Bill Morneau looks on as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to members of the media at a press conference in Stouffville, Ont., on Monday, October 16, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Well, at least this time, no one was elbowed in the boobs.

It’s not much, I know. But if you’re Justin Trudeau, you’ve got to take your wins where you can get them these days.

A week ago, I wrote about how the wheels suddenly seem to have come off the Liberal bus. I won’t recap it all here, but the thesis was basically this: this government is too young to be accumulating screw ups at this rate. It seems, I wrote, much older than its two years.

If only I’d waited a week. I’d have had a ton of great new material for the column, all of it circling around Finance Minister Bill Morneau. In just the last seven days, the Liberals have had to contend with the following Morneau-related disasters:

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  • The man who is taking on rich fat cats in defence of the middle class is so rich he forgot to disclose his ownership stake in a French villa.
  • The government that promised greater transparency fought for months to hide documents showing that it spent more than $200,000 on the photos and design for the federal budget’s cover page. The Conservatives spent a bit less on theirs: about $600.
  • The Globe and Mail reported earlier this week Morneau has not put his vast — so vast he loses track! — assets into a blind trust. CTV News later confirmed that he had set up a complicated structure where private corporations own his assets, and he owns the corporations. This is a loophole that allows him to still control the assets outside of a blind trust while technically not violating any laws or regulations. The ethics commissioner urged this loophole be closed years ago, but it’s still in effect, and Morneau availed himself to it even while blasting others for … using loopholes and accounting tricks.
  • Oh, and there’s the whole retreat-from-the-huge-tax-proposal thing, too.

The last one is where our story this week really begins. Trudeau and Morneau visited the Greater Toronto Area on Monday to announce significant changes to the controversial overhaul of how Canadians run money through private corporations. At a subsequent press conference, reporters from the Globe and Mail and our very own Global News tried to ask Morneau questions. The prime minister wasn’t interested in letting that happen.

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“I’ll take (your question),” the prime minister told Global’s Veronica Tang. “You’ve got an opportunity to chat with the prime minister. I’m happy to be here.” He later told a Globe reporter, who also had a question for Morneau, “You have to ask the question of me first, because you get the chance to talk to the prime minister.”

WATCH: Why did Justin Trudeau prevent Bill Morneau from answering questions?

Click to play video: 'Why did Justin Trudeau prevent Bill Morneau from answering questions?'
Why did Justin Trudeau prevent Bill Morneau from answering questions?

Wow! Gee whiz! A chance to talk to the prime minister!? That’s way better than a reporter actually being able to direct a specific question to the person they feel is best placed to provide an answer. Those reporters should have forgotten their questions and simply thanked the prime minister for the opportunity to bask in his mere presence.

To make it explicitly clear for the roughly five per cent of you who wouldn’t otherwise have realized — that was sarcastic. There are lots of times and places when a reporter wants to talk to the prime minister. There are other times and places where they want to put a specific question to a specific person, and given our PM’s expressed respect for journalists, he should let them. They’re professionals. They know what they’re doing.

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But so does the PM, of course — he obviously didn’t want Morneau doing any more damage to himself or the party. It made for a terribly awkward display (if you watch the video of Tang’s question, you can see Morneau in the background sort of throwing his hands up in the air and stepping back after the PM says he’ll take the questions).

WATCH: Justin Trudeau makes jokes, answers questions for Morneau

Click to play video: 'Justin Trudeau makes jokes, answers questions for Morneau'
Justin Trudeau makes jokes, answers questions for Morneau

As I’ve written before, in the aftermath of the “Elbowgate” fiasco I alluded to above, the prime minister seems to have endless faith in his own charisma and charm. It often works, but when it doesn’t, it’s horrible. It didn’t work on Monday. It was awkward to see. Smarm is never attractive in anyone.

But set that aside — what was the prime minister trying to do in the first place? Does he really think it’s a good idea to hurl himself like some kind of heroic bodyguard in front of every question aimed at Morneau? It didn’t avoid any problems, and it arguably created new ones. Whose idea was this?

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Refusing to let Morneau answer questions like a big boy also goes directly against the stated policy of … Justin Trudeau. Anyone remember all his talk about a return to cabinet-based government? No? Well, fair enough. It was in that long-ago, near-forgotten era of … 2015.

“This is going to be a period of slight adjustment for a number of people in the political world in Canada,” Trudeau said on the day of his swearing in, “because government by cabinet is back.”

Translation: this isn’t a one-man show. Trudeau was putting experts in charge of their files and said he was going to trust them. It was refreshing to hear that. Too much power has become concentrated in the Prime Minister’s Office. A return to a more decentralized style of governing, where competent ministers see to their own portfolios, was overdue.

And yet it’s apparently also over. How did Trudeau get from “cabinet-based government” to “You have to ask the question of me first?”

The basic problem now facing the Liberals is this: there are huge political costs to replacing a finance minister. The job is widely considered to be the second-most important in government, behind only the prime minister. Sacking Morneau, or politely shuffling him off to somewhere else, would necessarily be seen as an admission of failure. Trudeau will not want to do that, even after the brutal time Morneau has had of late.

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But Trudeau either has confidence in Morneau, the man entrusted to run our entire economy, or he doesn’t. This is binary — there’s no middle ground. If Trudeau has lost faith in Morneau, Morneau has got to go. If the prime minister still trusts him, cut the posturing for the press and let the man answer the questions put to him. Ministers are supposed to be responsible to the public, and that necessarily includes the media.

It was an embarrassing display to cap an embarrassing few weeks for a government that should be doing better than this. Canadians may not expect better, but they are owed it. And now would be a good time.

Matt Gurney is host of The Morning Show on Toronto’s Talk Radio AM640 and a columnist for Global News.

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