Morneau sees no conflict with C-27, despite ethics watchdog's concerns
Published Sunday, October 29, 2017 11:00AM EDT
OTTAWA – Finance Minister Bill Morneau says he doesn’t think he has anything to worry about with his sponsorship of a pension bill, despite the federal ethics watchdog expressing her "concerns."
On Thursday, Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson said she had "concerns" about Morneau’s sponsorship of Bill C-27, and will be following up with him about it.
"I don’t see that as a conflict at all," Morneau said in an interview with Evan Solomon, host of CTV’s Question Period.
Dawson made her concern known in writing, in response to NDP MP Nathan Cullen's letter to her. Cullen wrote to Dawson earlier this month, asking for an investigation into whether Morneau violated the Conflict of Interest Act because he sponsored a government bill that his family’s business stands to benefit from.
Bill C-27 proposes changes to private pensions, something that would fall under Morneau Shepell’s purview. Morneau tabled the bill in Oct. 2016, and it has not yet been debated.
In a statement issued on Friday, Morneau Shepell said it was not involved in the consultation on Bill C-27, and despite the company supporting the proposed changes, the legislation “is not expected to have a material impact on our company.”
At the time the letter was sent, Morneau was using an ethics loophole to continue to indirectly own shares in Morneau Shepell. Morneau has since announced he will divest himself, and following a meeting with Dawson on Thursday, says he will donate the money earned from any increase in the value of shares in Morneau Shepell since he was elected.
"As you probably know, I have been focused on pension issues for decades. I've been very involved in working and advocacy to improve pensions for Canadians," Morneau said.
However, Cullen said the fact that Morneau advocated for the pension changes both before and after being elected, supports the case for there being a conflict.
"He may think it’s good policy, that may be true, but he advocated for this when he was in the private sector because it was good for business," Cullen said on CTV’s Question Period.
He said it’s "obvious" his sponsorship of the bill is grounds for concern, as the ethics commissioner stated.
"The ethical walls that were in place, I think failed the finance minister, but I think his own judgment as to what conflict of interest is, continues to fail him," said Cullen.
It could be months before the commissioner decides whether or not to launch a formal investigation into the potential conflict over C-27.
Dawson 'supportive, but surprised' by divesting
The news that Dawson will be following up with Morneau about Bill C-27 came out after Morneau met with her on his request, to discuss the further steps he’s taking to divest himself.
Morneau said Dawson was "supportive, but surprised," by his decision to sell his shares in his family’s business, on top of putting his assets in a blind trust.
"If there's not a better way to give Canadians assurance that we're working on their behalf... I don’t know it, and that's why I'm doing it," Morneau said.
He also said he will be paying the $200 fee levied by the Commissioner’s office for not disclosing the corporation that holds his French villa.
"I’ve said to my team, let’s make sure we don’t make these mistakes, because they’re important not to do in future," said Morneau.
Conservative MP Marilyn Gladu said Morneau has only changed his tune after his financial assets made headlines.
"He didn’t do the right thing at the beginning. It was only after he got caught," she said.
Morneau not prioritizing balanced books
It was a full week for the finance minister, in addition to his ongoing personal financial issues and questions of conflict, Morneau tabled the federal government’s fall economic update on Tuesday.
The updated outlook showed an improved fiscal situation that’s allowing the government to make increases to come of its tax measures for middle and low income Canadians, even as the federal deficit is projected to be $19.8 billion in 2017-18.
While lower than anticipated, that is well above the amount the Liberals promised it would be when campaigning.
The deficit is set to continue dropping over the next five years, to $12.5 billion in 2022-23, but there is still no budget balance in sight. During the 2015 federal election campaign, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had pledged to run maximum deficits of $10 billion, until 2019 when he promised to balance the books.
Asked why the government has no plan to get back to balanced budgets, Morneau said, for him, it’s more important "to have balance."
"For us, balance is saying we're going to focus on what we came to office to do, which is to deal with the fact that middle class Canadians are not getting ahead as well as they’d like to get ahead… We were going to balance that objective, with the objective of always being fiscally responsible," said Morneau.
Former Liberal Finance Minister John Manley said now should be the time the government is restraining its spending and putting the extra funds aside for a rainy day.
“This is the best of times… That’s the time when we really need to be winding back on the fiscal side, so that whatever is just over the top of that hill, doesn’t put us into a difficult position,” he said on CTV’s Question Period.