Photo: Courtesy of Bill Morneau.
Bill Morneau on Trudeau’s Failings, Future Prosperity and a Memorable Dinner with Bill Gates
In a Q&A, the former finance minister talks about his book "Where To From Here," the federal government's pandemic response and what Canada needs to grow. / BY Kim Hughes / January 13th, 2023
If you want to know what’s wrong with Canada under the leadership of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, just ask Bill Morneau.
His latest book, Where To From Here: A Path to Canadian Prosperity is part memoir, part policy guide and a stinging critique of the prime minister’s on-the-job missteps as tallied by his former finance minister who, for five years from 2015 to 2020, had a bird’s-eye view of the inner workings, or apparent lack thereof, of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).
The former MP for Toronto Centre resigned from Trudeau’s government in August 2020 in the wake of the WE charity scandal, which exposed pre-existing relationships between Trudeau’s and Morneau’s families with the charity prior to it being awarded a lucrative federal contract.
Morneau owns it, writing, “Unequivocally, I should have recused myself from a decision to move forward with the plan on that basis.” A report from the ethics commissioner in May 2021 confirmed Morneau violated the Conflict of Interest Act, but didn’t benefit from the deal.
As former CEO of Morneau Shepell (now LifeWorks) — Canada’s largest human resources firm, which was built by his father — and former chair of the non-profit research organization C.D. Howe Institute, Morneau, 60, understands handling contentious relationships and balancing the books. Trudeau, he argues, does neither well.
“During the period when the largest government expenditures as a portion of GDP were made in the shortest time since the advent of World War II,” Morneau writes in “Navigating Crises and the PMO” — one of the book’s sharpest chapters, which chronicles decisions made regarding emergency pandemic benefits — “calculations and recommendations from the ministry of finance were basically disregarded in favour of winning a popularity contest.”
So, there’s that. But Where To From Here — co-written with veteran author John Lawrence Reynolds, who Morneau credits with making the book “approachable” — also offers sage and highly detailed ideas for making Canada stronger, richer and just plain better. It’s a focus the one-time Liberal MP maintains as he returns to private life.
Morneau, who in 2022 became chair on the inaugural advisory board at Magnet, a social innovation/technology incubator at Toronto Metropolitan University and joined CIBC’s board of directors, spoke to Zoomer from Toronto ahead of the book’s release. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Kim Hughes: The book is multifaceted. Where do you expect to find it filed in bookstores?
Bill Morneau: My expectation is that it will be in the memoir or general interest section. My hope is that people picking it up are really interested in the future of Canada. By writing it in a memoir form, my goal was to get more people reading about what I think are some prescriptions for how we can do better in the future.
KH: Did you visualize an ideal reader when you were writing?
BM: To be honest, I think it’s probably readers of Zoomer magazine. People who have seen a lot over many years, who really care about the future of our country and who are thinking not only about the current generation, but maybe more importantly about the challenges we are facing in future. Engaged Canadians.
KH: You’re very hard on Trudeau. You claim that he favoured optics over prudent fiscal policy during the pandemic and that he left his re-elected ministers hanging “for weeks” about their cabinet appointments after the 2019 election, which you call “a huge dereliction of the managerial process.” What do you anticipate the fallout from this book will be?
BM: I’m 100 per cent of the view that we made some important decisions and had some important achievements during the period I was in office. Carbon pricing was a critical decision and something I think will make a big difference in future. The Canada Pension Plan expansion was a good example of a public policy that will make a big, long-term impact. So, the criticisms are really coming from someone who was there and is trying to be constructive in thinking about ways we can do better in the future. We have a 24/7 world of media and social media pushing all of us into a short-term focus and government is in that reality. It creates polarization and competing regional priorities. How do we deal with it? You have to point out the things you’re not doing well in order to think about how to do things better. That’s what I was trying to achieve.
KH: Will Trudeau or Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland see it that way? Aren’t they more likely to take it personally?
BM: Being a minister means facing the reality of people looking at you every day and questioning your decisions. So, I think they will see these as criticisms, certainly, but I hope they will see this as someone who is trying to say, ‘We need to focus on the important, long-term issues. Growth, health care, the energy transition. Those require doing politics with a longer-term focus.’ I can’t know exactly what they’ll think. There is always a sting to criticism. But I think you try and figure out how to do things better and people who are pushing you in that direction is positive for the country.
KH: In the book, you talk a lot about the importance of relationships, between political leaders from different countries, the federal government and the provinces, and so on. What relationships do you see as most important for Canada right now?
BM: First and foremost, I think the relationships we have within this country are critical to moving forward. We have some very challenging, regional competing issues, so federal-provincial relations are the starting point. Health care, for example. Growth is also important. From my perspective, an area that needs to be of continued focus is the relationship with the United States. It’s enormously challenging, and the U.S. is one place where this short-term focus, this polarization is acute, and that means there are shifting dynamics. It’s important to be on top of those dynamics.
I give credit to Justin Trudeau, who I think had the appropriate focus on developing and maintaining a relationship with the United States during the renegotiation of NAFTA. My advocacy is that we should be doing that on a continuous basis. It’s the only way to be successful in a place where the dynamics are so challenging. From there the focus is on our close allies like the G7, places that are close by, like Mexico, and places with similar backgrounds and perspectives, like Australia and New Zealand. We should also expand into other Asia-Pacific countries where we can have a lot of impact as trade inevitably decelerates with China.
KH: On a lighter note, you recall a 2017 dinner you and Trudeau had with Bill Gates, his then-wife Melinda and Warren Buffet in Gates’ Washington home. That led to “one of the most memorable conversations I took part in during my time as finance minister.” I bet! What did he serve?
BM: The best sushi I have ever had. We sat down in Bill Gates’ library, which is the size of most people’s homes, with thousands upon thousands of books, which I suspect weren’t for show given Bill Gates’ virtually encyclopedic knowledge of everything he asked us about. He is absolutely focused on how we can make improvements in the world and takes a very serious-minded, academic yet practical approach. Warren Buffett, too, is a hugely intelligent, insightful man. That was a privilege and a highlight.
KH: What will success look like for you with this book?
BM: I hope that this government and future governments focus on people. The challenges are hard and the need to attract experienced people into public life is critically important. Long-term focus is also important. In business, there is this imperative among public companies to look at the short term because you have quarter-by-quarter results. But the most successful companies look toward the long-term. What can they build today that will have enduring impact? That’s hard to do. If my book helps people — maybe even some future finance minister or prime minister — to think that way, that would be a success. And if a lot of people read it, that’s even better.