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Morneau says PM favoured 'political points' over policy, felt like 'rubber stamp' ahead of 'inevitable' resignation

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Former federal finance minister Bill Morneau says that when it came to COVID-19 pandemic aid policy, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the top advisers in his office favoured "scoring political points" over policy rationales, leading to him feeling like a "rubber stamp" ahead of his "inevitable" resignation.

“My job of providing counsel and direction where fiscal matters were concerned had deteriorated into serving as something between a figurehead and a rubber stamp,” he writes in his new book, out on Jan. 17.

In a one-on-one interview with CTV News' Chief Political Correspondent Vassy Kapelos on her debut episode of CTV's Question Period, Morneau opened up about the behind-the-scene tensions in the lead-up to his high-profile departure, and spoke to some of the most revealing portions in the book, titled 'Where To from Here: A Path to Canadian Prosperity.'

"It became unsustainable," Morneau said in reference to what was behind his decision in August 2020 to resign both as finance minister and Toronto Centre MP. This move came six months into the federal government's COVID-19 aid rollout and amid the WE Charity controversy. 

At the time, despite assertions from the prime minister that Morneau had his confidence, there were leaks from sources suggesting a growing rift with Trudeau, in part over how the federal government was handling COVID-19 economic stimulus programs. Programs Morneau now thinks the Liberals "probably" overspent on. 

"The differences of opinion, they led us to have conclusions around whether we could work together that were mutual. So, whether it was about leaks, or whether it was about that difference in vision, I think it was pretty inevitable that five years for me was a great run, but it was time to move on," Morneau said in the interview.

As the book reveals, Morneau felt that Trudeau's government and the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) became preoccupied with how things were perceived at the expense of good policy, and how this led to one of the worst moments of his political life.

He writes that while he's impressed with how many positive policy decisions were taken "on the fly" in the early pandemic days, as the federal government faced pressure to react to the 24/7 news cycle and to be seen to be responding to the needs of key voter demographics such as seniors, "policy rationales were tossed aside in favour of scoring political points."

"We lost the agenda. During the period when the largest government expenditures as a portion of GDP were made in the shortest time since the advent of World War II, calculations and recommendations from the Ministry of Finance were basically disregarded in favour of winning a popularity contest," he writes.

Asked about this, Morneau told Kapelos that, to be fair to both sides, what Trudeau and his team were trying to do was appropriately ensure that Canadians had the confidence that they could weather the health and economic challenges of COVID-19, while finance officials were thinking about how to get the economy through the pandemic.

"I think one of the important threads in my book… is that the challenge of our modern-day government in the 24/7 news cycle is something that people have an incentive to react to… And when you do that, your ability to focus on the long-term, your ability to focus on growth in the economy, your ability to focus on the energy transition, your ability to focus on not just a one-year solution for health care, but an enduring solution for a generation is challenged," he said.

Morneau said that's a view he shared while he was around the cabinet table, and is a challenge that every government is facing.

"What I want to say is that good policy can be good politics… It is an enduring challenge, and it requires strong leadership."

WAS TENSION WITH TRUDEAU THE 'ENTIRE TIME'

The former finance minister starts his book off with a chapter called "Conversation in an Empty Room," in which he details the conversation he had at Rideau Cottage with the prime minister in the summer of 2020 when he told Trudeau that he'd be leaving.

He writes it was one of the "very few" times the two had discussed something in private without any other advisers or sources of counsel in the room which "simply didn't happen" in Trudeau's world.

"Virtually any topic you wanted to discuss with the prime minister—official or informal, strategy or gossip—had to be shared in the presence of members of his staff," he writes.

Morneau writes that he was "walking away from a job I had loved," but that the "differences" between the two became too much to surpass. He suggests in the book that had the pair had a more "robust relationship" to fall back on, perhaps things could have been different.

In the interview, Morneau said that there was a "healthy tension"— as he thinks there should be between the finance minister and prime minister— "during the entire time" they were in office together. But, once they entered the "pressure cooker" of the pandemic, those tensions frayed further.

Morneau said in the early days of the government's COVID-19 response, the two were "very aligned" in agreeing on the need to support Canadians who were out of work. But, as the COVID-19 waves continued, he and the Department of Finance were interested in trying to plot out how the multibillion-dollar aid programs could be tapered off.

"So, that was quite a difference of opinion, and really led to a situation where the sustainability of our relationship was, was not there."

'ONE OF THE WORST MOMENTS OF MY POLITICAL LIFE'

One of the examples of differences of opinion Morneau cites in his book is how the Liberals handled the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS).

He writes that the night before the program was unveiled, he had presented a package of research done by his department and himself, and felt that there was an agreement with Trudeau about how to proceed.

But then, the next morning he watched the prime minister unveil "with great pride" that "the amount of money made available to individual businesses via CEWS… a figure significantly higher than we had agreed was the highest we should go the previous evening!"

Morneau called it "one of the worst moments of my political life."

"In a moment where I saw us taking decisions that were more significant than I thought we needed, it was frankly, extremely frustrating," Morneau said in the interview. "I think in that moment, you know, it started to sow the seeds of a challenge. That we just weren't going to be able to recover."

The wage subsidy program ended up being the most expensive of the suite of COVID-19 financial assistance programs, with a recent Auditor General report putting the price tag at $100.7 billion. 

Ultimately, as he writes in the book, Morneau felt that his job "had deteriorated into serving as something between a figurehead and a rubber stamp."

"That's not why I wanted the position of finance minister, and it's not why it was created in the first place," he writes.

REGRETS OVER HANDLING OF WE CHARITY?

In the interview, Morneau was also asked about whether he had regrets about how he handled another major political controversy that was at play in the lead up to his departure: the WE Charity matter.

After paying back more than $41,000 in travel expenses for two trips his family took with the charity, and apologizing for not recusing himself from cabinet conversations about having WE administer an eventually-axed $912-million student grant program, in 2021 federal Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion found that Morneau had placed himself in a conflict of interest "on several occasions," in connection to the contract.

As he did at the time, Morneau said that the government's motivations were to find a way amid the chaos of COVID-19, to support students, but he is sorry that he didn't walk out of the room when the program came up.

"For sure, I should have recused myself… I was clear then, I am clear in the book… I wish I had done differently then," he said. "There were a lot of things going on, but we can always do better. And I think it's important to remember that in government, that responsibility is you know, an enduring responsibility."

IS HIS TIME IN POLITICS OVER?

Asked whether now, after looking back, he'd consider returning to politics, Morneau was noncommittal, but appeared to indicate that at this stage, he's focused on finding ways to have impact from the private sector.

"Let me just say, I really enjoyed my time in office. It's exciting to be at the centre of what's going on in the country. But more importantly, it's really meaningful to be able to have a big impact on the country. So I very much enjoyed the time doing that. I think that right now the things that I can do, I think I can add more value outside of that life," he said.

Kapelos followed up, asking whether that means never, or just not now.

"Politics is all about timing. And I think the timing for me now is to be back in the private sector, to find a way to make an impact there," Morneau said in response.

CTV's Question Period reached out to Trudeau's office for comment on Morneau's accusations and as of publication has not received a response.

With files from CTV News' Chief Political Correspondent Vassy Kapelos 

Tune in to CTV News' Chief Political Correspondent Vassy Kapelos' debut on CTV’s Question Period this Sunday at 11 a.m. 

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