Today, Bill Morneau presents his third budget as finance minister. That’s no small feat on its own.
For the finance minister, the last six months of 2017 were an ordeal — a prolonged stretch of self-inflicted wounds and critical scorn that culminated in November with Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer making a great show of demanding his resignation.
Morneau declined to take the opposition leader’s advice and, eventually, the pack moved on to other outrages (summer jobs, the Aga Khan, etc).
But now, after a quiet couple of months, Morneau rises this afternoon to deliver his third budget — and make his case for the right to deliver a fourth.
“To put it mildly, the finance minister and the government have a lot of credibility riding on the 2018 budget, perhaps even more than the 2019 budget,” Scott Clark and Peter DeVries, two former officials in the Finance Department, wrote earlier this year.
It should be a good time to be Morneau
The finance minister should be sitting pretty right now.
The Canadian economy created 432,000 new jobs in 2017. Even after a negative report for January, the national unemployment rate is just 5.9 per cent.
Last fall, the International Monetary Fund projected that Canada would lead the G7 in economic growth for 2017 and run second in 2018.
The Canada child benefit, the centrepiece of Morneau’s first budget in 2016, has been credited with helping to spur some of that economic growth. Shortly after that first budget, Morneau successfully negotiated an expansion of the Canada Pension Plan. And after some early trouble, he also may have landed on a set of durable reforms to clean up the system for taxing private corporations.
And with the government still prioritizing spending over balancing the budget, Morneau needn’t worry too much about imposing the sort of unpopular budget cuts that restraint requires.
So, things could be worse.
And yet, things are maybe not as good as they should be.
The tax reform kerfuffle
What began as a discussion paper on “tax fairness” last summer turned into a spectacular mess for the government. In the hands of Pierre Poilievre, Morneau’s primary opposition tormentor, the Finance Department’s proposals were presented as nothing short of an attack on the neighbourhood pizza shop.
That opposition line segued into questions about Morneau’s handling of his own substantial assets, including a villa in France — an inconvenient fact that emerged because he’d forgotten to disclose its corporate ownership to the ethics commissioner.
To extricate himself from this trouble, the finance minister sold his stake in his family’s pension business and donated millions to charity. Still looming over Morneau is an ethics commissioner’s investigation into whether it was a conflict of interest for him to table pension legislation in 2016.
But being rich is not Morneau’s only point of vulnerability.
Follow CBC’s budget coverage today
The CBC’s Hannah Thibedeau takes your questions ahead of today’s federal budget at 1 p.m. ET at Facebook.com/CBCPolitics live from Parliament Hill. Live coverage continues at 3 p.m. ET on CBC News Network and cbcnews.ca with a pre-budget special hosted by Rosemary Barton, and our budget specials on CBC Television, cbcnews.ca, Twitter and CBC Radio One at 4 p.m. ET. Find more programming details here.
His abilities as a finance minister aside, Morneau is not a particularly dynamic performer in public. He is amiable and professional, but cautious. His words don’t lend themselves to lengthy think pieces. Opposite Poilievre — a creature of Parliament Hill and an aggressive debater who was first elected in 2004 at the age of 24 — Morneau might never win the day in question period.
Maybe QP performances seem like a poor standard by which to measure a finance minister’s worth, but such is politics. And a winning afternoon in the House might help to…