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Bill Morneau and a new sort of Liberal arrogance

It is really, really hard to fathom what Bill Morneau was thinking.

Why did the Finance Minister decline to put his vast personal holdings into a blind trust, after suggesting at the time of his appointment that he would do just that? How could he not see the potential appearance of a conflict of interest as he implemented changes to rules around private pension plans, while failing to fully distance himself from a company that sells pension plans? Why did he fail to follow his own mandate letter's instruction that "the arrangement of your private affairs should bear the closest possible scrutiny," beyond "simply acting within the law"?

Unless Mr. Morneau decides to bare his soul, which would first require Justin Trudeau allowing him to speak for himself, we won't have answers to those questions.

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But if you're familiar with the culture of this Liberal government, the way Mr. Trudeau and people around him tend to see themselves and each other, it's easier to understand how Mr. Morneau's entitlement or naiveté or whatever it was went unchecked for as long as it did. And it becomes apparent, too, that their unyielding faith in their own virtue threatens to make Canadians see them as decidedly unvirtuous, and to contribute to the very cynicism about government and our institutions that Mr. Trudeau likes to think he is challenging.

In a government cautious about maintaining high ethical standards, conscious of the fragility of its perceived integrity, it might have been harder for a rookie politician – even one immediately named to a top cabinet post – to decide he could skate by on the narrowest interpretation of ethical obligations.

The Prime Minister's Office, or Mr. Morneau's staff (some of whom were handpicked by the PMO), might have impressed on him (beyond a few words in a letter) that more was expected.

Particularly before he pushed forward both pension reforms and a package of policies aimed at closing tax loopholes, they might have checked that one of the richest ministers in history had done everything possible to insulate himself from perceived conflicts or hypocrisy.

But that would have required them to believe top members of their own ranks could credibly have their motives questioned, and how could that be. While these Liberals seem okay with occasional questions about their competence, may even sometimes be critical of each other when it comes to making the mechanics of government work, few of them will countenance any suggestion they're motivated by anything other than public service. An unhealthy relationship with the trappings of power afflicted the old Liberals, the Chrétien- and Martin-era ones flushed out by Mr. Trudeau after he took over the party, but not them.

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That mentality seems to apply, in particular, to people who left behind more comfortable lives outside politics, of which Mr. Morneau is the best possible example. Surely someone worth hundreds of millions of dollars has not subjected himself to the indignity of politics, unglamorous door-to-door canvassing to get himself elected and invective hurled at him daily by his opponents, so he can game the system to make himself a few extra bucks. Clearly, like everyone else in Mr. Trudeau's orbit, he was personally offended by Stephen Harper's management of the country, and wanted to help make Canada a better, fairer place.

Such faith may not be misplaced, exactly. Even outside Liberal circles, most people who know Mr. Morneau seem to have the impression he's generally well-meaning, if maybe lacking political instincts.

But of course, most Canadians can't vouch for the Finance Minister personally, so their faith in the integrity of the person who sets policy for how their earnings are taxed and their pensions regulated is contingent on available public evidence. And in the past week, the evidence on display – that he took advantage of a loophole that allowed him to keep shares of his company outside a blind trust by putting them in a holding company, that his office's conflict-of-interest "screen" did not stop him from engaging in pension policy, that he failed to disclose his partnership in a company that owns his family villa in France – has not been good.

Also: It doesn't matter how good a guy Mr. Morneau is. Incorruptible people are supposed to set high ethical standards in case more corruptible people ever get into their jobs. Instead, at best, the Liberals allowed the bar to be lowered because they believed they themselves were not corruptible.

That may not be arrogance of the same sort that those old Liberals showed. But is there a better word for it?

Bill Morneau announces $50,000 passive income threshold (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author
Political Feature Writer

Adam Radwanski is The Globe and Mail's political feature writer. More

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