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Morneau on Trudeau: "sorely lacking"
Chronic weaknesses in the Liberal government weren't fixed, the former finance minister says in a new book, and Canada's prosperity suffered
Justin Trudeau’s “management and interpersonal communication abilities were sorely lacking,” former finance minister Bill Morneau writes in a new book. Lingering challenges were “not managed on a daily basis at the highest level.” The federal cabinet was “chosen not necessarily for what they brought to the business of governing but to the needs of promotion.” Morneau says the Prime Minister’s Office often told him to “give” quarrelsome colleagues “something to keep them happy,” so that “money became a means for the PMO to manage egos and relationships between cabinet ministers.”
The blunt and extended critique of the government in which he served from 2015 to 2020 is far from the only theme in Where To From Here: A Path to Canadian Prosperity, to be published Jan. 17 by ECW Press. Especially in its second half, the book presents Morneau’s case for government that would build better relationships within Ottawa and with the provinces, in pursuit of long-term prosperity that Morneau views as threatened.
His years in government “convinced me that productivity improvement is the most important issue on our agenda,” he writes, “and we are not focused on it.”
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Morneau builds his policy case across several chapters, quoting an OECD paper that projects Canada would have the lowest GDP increase among the world’s industrialized nations over the next 40 years. That lost opportunity, if it were changed through extended government effort, could drive higher family incomes and more generous social programs for an aging population, Morneau writes.
But after the early successes of a government that came to power with great promise in 2015, Morneau found few takers for the policies he thought were needed to encourage economic growth, he writes.
I have read an advance copy of Morneau’s book because I will interview the former finance minister at the Munk School at the University of Toronto on Jan. 23. Registration information is here. The interview will become an episode of my podcast, The Paul Wells Show.
Morneau reveals early on what many suspected: when he resigned from the government at the height of the first COVID-19 lockdown in August 2020, it wasn’t primarily to seek the top job at the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, a global NGO dedicated to proposing growth policies for Canada and a bunch of peer countries. He did plan to try for the post, but he knew it was a long shot. Mostly he was furious at a campaign of embarrassing media leaks against him, orchestrated, he believed, from Trudeau’s office.
“I began by explaining to the prime minister that the leaks from his office about me and my ministry had become intolerable,” he writes. “They had grown in both number and degree of malice…”
Trudeau “replied that he was not aware of the leaks, and he had no idea where they were coming from.” Morneau doesn’t buy it. “Really?”
In the book, Morneau comes to elected office after a life of comfort and entrepreneurship (“As a teenager I purchased a small swimming-pool company”). He is well aware that Justin Trudeau’s qualities — “sharp intelligence and charisma… knack for building public rapport and affection” — drove the Liberals to power in 2015 after four years in third place. But Morneau eventually decides Trudeau’s assets are limited by poor management skills and “inability or lack of interest in forging relationships” with “me and, as far as I could tell, the rest of his cabinet.”
Morneau’s instincts for encouraging economic growth and investment often put him at odds with a government that was increasingly interested in policies that “sound good.” He admired Stephen Harper’s decision to raise the age for retirement benefits, which the Trudeau government promptly reversed. He found demand-side housing policy, which gave money in various forms to young home-buyers but almost inevitably boosted house prices, “simplistic.”
But like other rookie ministers, he was given little latitude from the outset. His preferred candidate to be his chief of staff, a veteran political staffer at the federal and provincial levels with considerable private-sector experience named John Zerucelli, was vetoed by the PMO.
Fair enough, Morneau writes, he was new. But four years later two PMO staffers came to his office and informed him, without any interest in his opinion, what the Liberal Party’s economic platform would be in the 2019 election. In his view, power now resided in the hands of “advisors assigned to compel agreement from cabinet ministers.” It made him question whether he should run again. An extended period of silence from the PMO in the weeks after the Liberals’ sharply diminished 2019 victory confirmed his unease and undercut ministers’ ability to maintain forward momentum on key files. “Whatever the cause of this extended period of non-discussion, I considered it a huge dereliction of the managerial process,” he writes.
Jody Wilson-Raybould, the former attorney-general, makes an uncannily similar case in her own memoir, based on her claims that Trudeau’s and Morneau’s advisors had worked hard to compel her own agreement during the SNC-Lavalin affair. But Morneau’s book is not intended to be an authoritative history of the Trudeau years or, despite the excerpts I’ve cited here, a wall-to-wall indictment of the Trudeau government. He devotes only a page to the SNC-Lavalin affair and shows little interest in Wilson-Raybould’s side of that dispute. He spends half a chapter defending his continuing conviction that Canada must pursue deeper trade relations with China. “If you insist on living exclusively according to your highest principles, you’ll find yourself living with a very small number of people,” he writes.
Mostly he argues for a different style of government in pursuit of longer-term strategic goals instead of short-term popularity. His preferred governing style would be more collegial within the cabinet, more open to dissent, more focussed on a smaller number of priorities, and more consultative with provincial and territorial governments.
Morneau is perhaps surprisingly empathetic about the rise of populism in Canadian politics. “Populism is not a political movemetn on its own. It is a reaction to feelings of alienation, a sense that power resides within some definition of social elites, unavailable to ‘ordinary people.’” In a brief passage on Pierre Poilievre’s success at personalizing his attacks on Morneau when Poilievre was the Conservative finance critic, it’s clear Morneau is still smarting over the way his opponent used his own privilege against him.
In the book and in our conversations in advance of the Munk School interview later this month, Morneau gives no indication that he’s thinking about political leadership because he hopes to return to elected politics. He is working on a business venture, he says, and simply wants to share whatever lessons he learned from his time in government.
His extended critique of his old team won’t endear him to Liberals who remain loyal to Trudeau, whether from conviction or a sense of their party’s interests. But it should generate considerable attention for a book that argues for different priorities at the top.