The ballad of Bill Morneau — a call for more economic growth, less politics | CBC News

Bill Morneau never seemed to like the political aspects of politics.

That might explain both the rockiest moments of his tenure as finance minister and some of the complaints he chose to air during a speech in Toronto this week. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he is bereft of political insight.

“Politics is, frankly, nothing like business,” Morneau said Wednesday, according to the prepared text of his remarks (all quotes are taken from the prepared text). “I have much more scar tissue from five or six years in politics than I do from 25 years in business.”

Morneau cited the sources of those scars: partisan rivals, second-guessing by colleagues and staff in other offices, criticism from the press gallery and the divisiveness of social media.

Morneau’s speech strongly suggests he and his former boss no longer see eye-to-eye. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

He also worried more generally about the way politics is sometimes practised and warned about the need to call out politicians who play “fast and loose with our institutions” — apparently a reference to Conservative leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre, with whom Morneau frequently tangled.

But his most interesting comments were about what he said was happening around him during his time as finance minister.

Morneau wrestles with governing and politics

According to Morneau, a lack of “sustained collaboration with provinces, territories and municipalities” has hampered investments in infrastructure. With his first budget in 2016, Morneau announced the government’s intention to create the Canada Infrastructure Bank. He said “a lack of commitment to the idea and politicians’ worst instincts means that it’s fallen short of the hoped-for impact.”

“On pharmacare, when I suggested that we find a way to work within the current system and focus on filling in the gaps in coverage and care, I was drowned out by the impractical voices of advocates who wanted to see wholesale change,” he said. “And look where we are now. No progress.”

It wasn’t all bad, of course. Morneau also listed his proudest accomplishments, from a national price on carbon to reform of the Canada Pension Plan.

These are fascinating comments to hear or read from a former finance minister about a government that is still in office — even if it would be fair to ask whether Morneau himself, as finance minister, could have done more to address these issues.

But there were also flashes of naiveté in his remarks.

“It’s baffling to me that the government moved forward with new commitments on dental care while the pharmacare challenge remains unresolved,” Morneau said.

Moving forward with dental care was the price of making a confidence-and-supply agreement with the NDP that’s expected to keep the Trudeau government in office until June 2025. It’s the sort of compromise that comes naturally with governing.

Dental care was the price of getting Jagmeet Singh’s NDP to join to a confidence-and-supply agreement. (Patrick Doyle/Reuters)

Morneau said he “wasn’t able” to get the federal government to work more collaboratively with provincial governments. Some of those provincial governments might simply have been uninterested in collaboration.

Morneau praised the advisory council on growth — a panel of non-partisan experts that he created — but said he regrets that its recommendations “became politicized.” That, of course, is something that tends to happen in politics.

There’s something to be said for the permanent “growth commission” that Morneau proposes, but he pushed his desire for apolitical reasonableness a step too far when he said that “it’s imperative that we depoliticize important public policy decisions” and “we need to look for other opportunities to decouple policy from politics.”

Technocracy might have its merits but democracy is probably still the better option. And that means politics.

The rise and fall of a star candidate

There’s always value in questioning whether things need to be the way they are. And Morneau is on much firmer ground when he laments the unnecessary divisiveness that plagues public life. Or when he says simply that politics “doesn’t have to be stupid.”

There are significant differences but the rise and fall of Bill Morneau now bears a certain resemblance to the examples of Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott — individuals who built public reputations outside of partisan politics, got elected and were immediately elevated to cabinet, but who parted with the government on bad terms and came away with rather negative things to say about the whole experience.

Jody Wilson-Raybould’s experience in politics has a lot in common with that of other star candidates like Bill Morneau. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press)

Maybe that says something about the political system, or this government.

Then again, Jean-Yves Duclos — a well-regarded economist who immediately became a minister in 2015 — is still sitting around the cabinet table. Anita Anand — a law professor who advanced directly to cabinet after being elected in 2019 — seems to be doing okay for herself.

Perhaps future Liberal prime ministers should simply remember that it’s the star candidates who aren’t lifelong partisans who tend to air their complaints if things don’t work out (which is either a reason to avoid star candidates or a reason to make sure it works out).

The former finance minister’s big worry

But beyond the spilled tea, Morneau used his speech to make a fundamental argument about the government he departed in 2020 — that it isn’t focused enough on creating and promoting economic growth.

“So much time and energy was spent on finding ways to redistribute Canada’s wealth that there was little attention given to the importance of increasing our collective prosperity — let alone developing a disciplined way of thinking and acting on the problem,” he said.

“I struggled to get our government to focus on the need for sustained economic growth, because it was constantly crowded out by other things that seemed more politically urgent, even if they weren’t truly as important.”

Without knowing what “other things” Morneau had in mind, it’s hard to judge that statement. In worrying about things like competitiveness, productivity and business investment, Morneau joins a chorus of credentialed observers who believe Justin Trudeau’s government is paying too little attention to core economic issues and is failing to create the conditions for robust long-term growth.

The word “growth” was hardly absent from the budgets and economic updates Morneau tabled as finance minister. Then and now, Liberals would say that their treatment of issues like inequality and climate change is intended to have the side effect of promoting sustainable growth.

Morneau’s successor, Chrystia Freeland, also tabled a budget less than two months ago that included a Canada Growth Fund and the promise of a Canadian Innovation and Investment Agency.

Grow the economy or else?

But the plans in that budget still need to be carried to fruition — something Morneau’s testimony suggests is not always guaranteed. And Morneau has put his finger on what might be the foremost issue the Liberals need to confront over the next three years.

Whatever else happens between now and 2025, the biggest threat to the government’s progressive agenda might be the idea that it doesn’t have a grip on the economy. With inflation persisting and the transition to a clean economy beckoning, these are particularly challenging economic times.

Morneau is aware also of forces that might be massing beyond the halls of power. Near the end of his remarks he spoke of voters who are “feeling left out and disengaged” and said leaders need to “redouble their efforts to heal divisions, bring people together, restore faith in our institutions and rebuild public trust.”

Those are not bad ideas. But if voters are feeling left out and populists are playing fast and loose, progressives have even more reasons to make sure they’re building an economy that’s both inclusive and growing.

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