Morneau says now is the right time for a new finance minister (during a pandemic, as people worry about making ends meet while the country faces a deficit of 300 billion Canadian dollars) and that he only ever intended to serve two election cycles. (Morneau has lasted closer to five years than the eight years his comment implies). On the face of it, the former finance minister’s account strains credulity. After days of stories trailing leaked information — presumably from the prime minister’s office or those adjacent to it — about tensions between Trudeau and Morneau, it seems unlikely that the latter elected, as a first choice, to resign as finance minister of a Group of Seven country during a crisis to angle for a move to the OECD.
Why did Morneau really go? It looks like a jump-before-you-get-pushed job by a prime minister who refuses to let disagreement go too far. Was it the WE Charity scandal — and forgetting to repay $41,000 in gifted travel from the organization that had been tapped to run a massive federal program? Or was it difficulty working with the prime minister, including substantive policy clashes? It’s a whole rich, rotten tapestry. But is the country better off for it anyway, either now or later?
Replacing Morneau as finance minister is Chrystia Freeland — the first woman in Canadian history to hold the job federally. She has shown competence and capacity in her past portfolios, including foreign affairs, international trade and intergovernmental relations. But what remains to be seen is her plan for managing the pandemic now and recovering from it later — and whether she can get the prime minister to sign on.
On Tuesday at a news conference with Trudeau, Freeland noted, “I think all Canadians understand that the restart of our economy needs to be green.” She also pointed out that the economic consequences of the pandemic have been borne disproportionately by women. Encouraging thinking. More to the point, she said Canada should pursue “bold new solutions.” But what does that mean? Let’s hope it isn’t more of the middling same.
I’m doubtful the Liberals will take this critical juncture to sufficiently pursue any of the difficult, perhaps unorthodox, but necessary structural changes — alone or in concert with the provinces — that would help to produce a more just and inclusive economy. Those measures could include a wealth tax, a plan to tackle big tax dodgers, higher taxes for just about everyone, universal pharmacare, universal child care, ambitious green infrastructure, programming to encourage worker-owned enterprises or a basic income. For his part, in the same news conference, Trudeau ruled out any new taxes after announcing his plans to prorogue Parliament, shutting down, among other things, committee investigation work into the WE scandal until Sept. 23 (something Trudeau criticized his former opponent, then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper for doing).
The markets didn’t balk at pre-opening morning reports of Freeland’s appointments. The Canadian dollar appreciated against the U.S. dollar. The bankers don’t seem too worried about the woman who wrote “Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else.” These aren’t the best signs for those who hope for a radical plan to address an extraordinary crisis and its aftermath. But hope and hard work spring eternal, if only for a lack of other options.
In the fall, the Liberals will return after a cabinet retreat with a new parliamentary agenda to face a country and world in crisis. With their new finance minister in front, they ought to be prepared to meet Parliament and the challenge of the pandemic with a radical economic plan that takes this crisis as a chance to remake the country and its economy in search of a more just, inclusive and sustainable future. If not, before long, they may find themselves meeting an election and a citizenry prepared for a new government.