The resignation of another high-profile cabinet minister – this time, Bill Morneau, the administrator of Canada’s crisis-time economy – signals the pitfalls of the Prime Minister’s promises to breathe fresh air into stodgy governance institutions

The resignation of another high-profile cabinet minister – this time, Bill Morneau, the administrator of Canada’s crisis-time economy – signals the pitfalls of the Prime Minister’s promises to breathe fresh air into stodgy governance institutions

Former finance minister Bill Morneau is seen with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Ottawa, On. on March 11, 2020.
Blair Gable/Reuters
Lori Turnbull is the director of the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University and the deputy editor of Canadian Government Executive magazine.
Back in 2015, Justin Trudeaus Liberal Party ran on an ambitious platform that promised to do government differently. They proposed a fresh, modern take on what they defined as antiquated institutions: cabinet, the Senate, the electoral system and the appointments process.
The Liberals would go on to win a majority government, and in those early days, Mr. Trudeau spoke of his intent to employ a government by cabinet approach, which would trust and empower ministers to own their own files and do their jobs. He would support rather than script and second-guess the ministers in his gender-equal cabinet, whom he said he chose because of their personal and professional credentials rather than their loyalty to him or the Liberal Party. It would be on the basis of these qualities, he said, that he would pledge his confidence in his ministers.
Story continues below advertisement
But in that antiquated system of parliamentary governance in which we operate, the concept of confidence has tremendous significance. The legitimacy of a government ultimately depends on whether it holds the confidence of the elected legislature. Cabinet ministers serve in their roles as long as they enjoy the confidence of the Prime Minister. And while the meaning of confidence is hard to pin down with any degree of exactness, it is not achieved simply by meeting expectations with respect to competence or compliance with rules. Confidence goes deeper than that; it is synonymous with trust.
Thats relevant now, as weve been hearing a lot about confidence lately and, in some cases, a possible lack thereof. A year after Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott resigned in connection with the SNC-Lavalin affair, with both citing a lack of confidence in the governments handling of the issue, another high-profile cabinet minister Bill Morneau, who has tended to the Canadian economy during the pandemic announced Monday that he would be stepping down.
The Finance Ministers departure comes amid probes by the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner and two standing House committees around a now-cancelled multimillion-dollar distribution arrangement between the federal government and WE Charity. Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Morneau, who failed to recuse themselves from cabinets decision despite family ties to WE Charity, have been at the centre of the controversy. In recent weeks, Mr. Trudeau has assured Canadians that his crisis-time Finance Minister had his full confidence. Now, hes headed for the door.
In his evening news conference, Mr. Morneau rather than the Prime Minister himself, notably told Canadians that he was not pushed out. From an optics perspective, a voluntary resignation is the only version of events that remaining cabinet ministers could hope to defend. After all, how could the Prime Minister fire his most senior minister for the same kinds of mistakes he is alleged to have made himself on the same file?
On the other hand, keeping Mr. Morneau around wasnt working, either: The Prime Ministers frequent expressions of confidence in him sounded forced. And Mr. Trudeaus words wouldve been more reassuring had he not been himself involved in the WE situation and if he hadnt begun a public courtship of former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney to assist with Canadas economic recovery.
The WE scandal damaged Mr. Morneaus reputation, but the fallout from that could have been managed. Still, it seemed to be the tipping point in the Prime Ministers confidence in his Finance Minister, despite his ambitious visions of a new style of government.
The departures of Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Ms. Philpott were noteworthy for how they expressed a lack of confidence in the Prime Minister, rather than the other way around. And with Mr. Morneau left out in the cold as he watched his boss make inroads with Mr. Carney, but apparently still interested in public service as he prepares to run for secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development there appeared to have been the same crisis of confidence.
Story continues below advertisement
For now at least, Mr. Morneau will be replaced in the finance portfolio by Chrystia Freeland, the minister of everything in whom the Prime Minister clearly has boundless confidence. He has hers, too: When asked to comment on her bosss role in WE Charity, she said she has complete confidence in Mr. Trudeau. Her appointment will surely help the government reset itself, but Mr. Morneaus departure remains a loud statement on what confidence means in Justin Trudeaus government done differently.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Share