When the prime minister and the finance minister are in conflict, typically the prime minister wins, according to former finance minister Bill Morneau .
“The need for tension between the finance minister and the prime minister was really clear. You need to have that if you are going to get good public policy outcomes,” said Morneau. “But if it gets too intense, you have to think about whether you are going to be able to continue to work together.”
Morneau made the comments while discussing his own controversial foray into federal politics in an interview for The Paul Wells Show podcast at the Munk School of Global Affairs on Jan. 23. He resigned from his position as finance minister in 2020 after a conflict with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“We had been working really hard to try and deal with the pandemic and trying to figure out a way to deliver programs that were frankly not even conceived or thought about six months earlier, so it was an extremely difficult time,” said Morneau.
“You make mistakes when you move fast. I certainly acknowledge that I made mistakes.”
Morneau served as the finance minister from 2015 to 2020 in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet. He resigned following the criticism both he and Trudeau faced for their involvement with WE Charity.
Trudeau and Morneau came under heavy fire for awarding the management of the $900-million student grant program solely to WE Charity; the opposition alleged both leaders having close ties with the organization’s leaders.
Trudeau was ultimately cleared of wrongdoing by the Federal Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion, but Morneau was found to be in breach in the Conflict of Interest Act for failing to recuse himself from certain cabinet discussions.
Friends become foes
The federal government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic also drove a wedge between Trudeau and Morneau.
Morneau said it was intense trying to figure out a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and that their perspectives were initially quite aligned.
“We recognized the need for massive support for Canadians was absolutely necessary,” he said.
“We had a different point of view as we got further along and I was much more concerned that we were trying to taper that support in a way that will allow us to come out of COVID appropriately.”
The pressure and intensity led to them “lacking in alignment” and drove them to “different conclusions on what the right answers were,” Morneau said.
Reminiscing about the day he decided to leave federal politics, Morneau said it was one of the rare occasions where him and Trudeau had a “one-on-one” interaction. “I like to think at least that I left respectfully to my former colleagues with a sense that I know I have been part of something important.”
Morneau said he loved being in public life and encouraged everyone that they too can get into public life and make an impact. However he did have a caution.
“They will need to develop a tough skin. That’s part of the deal,” he said.