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Bill Morneau does the right thing two years too late: Tim Harper

The finance minister wants to look ahead, but he can’t erase his dubious financial dealings of the past two years.

Minister of Finance Bill Morneau has been accused of potentially profiting from his government’s pension reform bill, which could create business for his family company, Morneau Shepell. On Thursday he committed to selling his 1 million shares in the company.

LARS HAGBERG / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Minister of Finance Bill Morneau has been accused of potentially profiting from his government’s pension reform bill, which could create business for his family company, Morneau Shepell. On Thursday he committed to selling his 1 million shares in the company.

“I don’t think I’ve been down here before,” Bill Morneau said as he strode to the podium Thursday afternoon,

He was talking about a subterranean news conference room on Parliament Hill, but he might as well have been talking about his political fortunes.

Morneau had been everywhere this week — Stouffville, Erinsville, and Markham, Ont., Montreal and Hampton, N.B., — everywhere but where he should have been, in Ottawa, taking action and answering questions if the Liberal government had proved more adept at desperately needed damage control on a burgeoning conflict-of-interest crisis.

Morneau finally did the right thing, placing his substantial assets in a blind trust and announcing he would begin divesting his interest in the family business, Morneau Shepell.

Except this was 2017.

This should have been done a couple of years ago, because, to paraphrase Justin Trudeau, it was 2015.

That was the year Morneau was named the country’s finance minister and Thursday’s decision doesn’t erase the previous two years.

So, Morneau still had some uncomfortable questions hanging, even as he embarked on his divestment strategy.

Why now? One is left with the unmistakeable sense that he got caught by some enterprising reporting. What if the Globe and Mail had not found that Morneau’s substantial holdings were not in a blind trust?

One could easily believe that Morneau would have continued on his path, using a loophole in the conflict-of-interest legislation allowing him to hold shares in the family company through an arm’s-length holding company.

Why did he tell the CBC shortly after his election that he was going to put his assets in a blind trust? And why did Morneau Shepell believe his assets were in a blind trust?

It must have been tough to counter that impression when you put it out there yourself.

He said he expected the blind trust was the way to go, but he agreed to accept Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson’s advice that there were other options, including the conflict-of-interest screen he put in place.

When he left Morneau Shepell, he held 2.2 million shares in the company, but Thursday said he had about a million shares. But when did he unload the other 1.2 million shares?

Here’s the nub of the conflict charge, as raised by New Democrat Nathan Cullen, an unproven allegation that nonetheless brings some smoke.

When Morneau introduced Bill C-27, legislation to make it easier for federal employees to move to a targeted benefit pension, a move which would benefit Morneau Shepell, the company’s stock went up 4.8 per cent within days, Cullen says. Morneau, he said, would have made $2 million in five days from that jump. But it’s not known that Morneau was holding or selling stock at that time.

The prime minister’s office would have been well-advised to let Morneau climb down from his tax reform package in a single day, hustle him back to Ottawa, and try to put a lid on this sooner.

Perhaps referring to this matter as “a distraction” is not the word you want to use to demonstrate an understanding of the severity of the matter.

A day earlier, Trudeau seemed to wilt while taking 30 questions on Morneau, falling back on familiar tropes — referring to opposition questions as “mud-slinging,’’ accusing Conservatives of trying to sully Morneau’s good name, of “shrieking,’’ and playing “petty politics.’’

Accusing opponents of getting down in the mud doesn’t work here — the charges against Morneau were sufficiently serious that they deserved more substantive answers.

Morneau said he believed, perhaps “naively,’’ that following the rules and following the advice of an officer of Parliament would be enough.

Naïve? That’s a hard sell, whether the minister was a political neophyte or not. He certainly knows business and commerce and you don’t get where he got by carting around a bunch of naivete.

He has done nothing illegal, but has badly sullied his own reputation, pushed his government far off message at mid-term and played into a dangerous narrative for the Liberals, that they are not only out of touch, but also not above of using numbered companies to exploit loopholes for their advantage.

As he wrapped up a media event in the morning in Erinsville, Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay was heard to tell Morneau: “I can’t imagine they (reporters) weren’t interested in the (tax) measures. Go figure.’’

One can only assume that was a minister who has been around the block a few times slyly telling the rookie he was in deep.

Tim Harper writes on national affairs.  tjharper77@gmail.com, Twitter: @nutgraf1

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