Conflicts and character

Finance Minister Bill Morneau is exactly the sort of person who should be in Parliament. He’s a successful and well-educated business leader with an INSEAD MBA and a master’s from the London School of Economics. He’s worth millions and in his fifties could take the time to run for office. Morneau is also a member of the lucky sperm club. He joined the actuarial firm founded by his father and eventually became CEO of Morneau, Shepell.

Until very recently, Morneau had made no mistakes and was a star in Ottawa. Last week, you could see how far he’d fallen when a reporter’s questions about Morneau’s financial affairs were fielded by the prime minister. The injured look on Morneau’s face at being pushed aside evoked his devastation. Next to losing an election, being so publicly emasculated is the worst thing that can befall a politician.

Morneau used a loophole to skirt the conflict of interest rules because his shares in Morneau, Shepell were in a holding company. If the rules allow that, they are far too lax. But either a Morneau staffer or someone in the Prime Minister’s Office should have told Morneau to put everything in a blind trust right from the get-go. There’s conflicts, and there’s the appearance of conflicts, and both are equally wrong.

After my former boss Robert Stanfield got into federal politics, he put his own substantial fortune into a blind trust in the early 1970s long before there were any such rules. Which led to his friend Finlay MacDonald telling Stanfield one day, “I have good news and I have bad news. The bad news is that the value of your blind trust has fallen to zero. The good news is that you were not in any conflict of interest all the way down.” Stanfield didn’t laugh at the joke. Morneau’s economic update today was mostly good news, but is it enough? He may recover from the conflict fiasco, but he has been forever altered in the public eye.

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