In an early evening press conference, former Canadian Finance Minister Bill Morneau told Canadians he was stepping down and leaving politics.
By all accounts, Morneau is nice man, and history will likely be kind to him in terms of what he achieved in government. Most notably, the introduction of gender-based budgeting, the Canada Child Benefit, and the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), which have all made a real difference in the lives of Canadians, especially those who have historically been left behind.
But as rumours swirled of his departure as finance minister, one reason came to the forefront that makes him particularly ill-suited for the moment we find ourselves in as a country: that he unsurprisingly wanted his legacy as finance minister to be that of a good fiscal manager, despite the clear need for even deeper investment in Canadians in the years to come.
That appears to be the gap that widened between him and the Prime Minister, who, now five years in office, is transitioning into the legacy period that all prime ministers enter if they’re lucky enough to serve a second or third term in office. During a second term, especially in a minority parliament, leaders often begin to recognize on a deeper level that their time to make lasting change is fleeting.
Even if Morneau had been able to get on board with this mission of recovery as a years-long process (rather than a few quick shots in the arm to the Canadian public during the first wave of the pandemic), he would have remained a flawed messenger. The WE scandal was only the final straw. Even as Morneau helped deliver the biggest reduction in child poverty in Canadian history, his ability to forget owning villas in far off countries and to write casual cheques bigger than many people’s annual salary would not go away.
Despite his policy achievements, these gaffes fed into the idea that someone who inherited the largest human resources firm in the country and married into the famous McCain family cannot possibly understand struggling families across Canada during what promises to be a long road back.
Historically, finance ministers are chosen because of their connections to Bay Street. Prime ministers want someone who knows the business world, but more importantly, is trusted by those who make their living in it. It’s why the day after a new finance minister is announced, you’ll see the newspapers talk about how the markets are reacting to the new appointment.
But what Canadians actually need right now is a finance minister who understands and fights for Main Street, not Bay Street. Those most in need of reassurance right now are the people staring down the end of CERB without a lead on a new job but plenty of bills piling up on their kitchen table. If the pandemic has proven anything, it’s that still-soaring financial markets are no longer an indicator of a healthy economy able to keep all boats afloat.
We’ve know for a long time that tax-cuts for so-called job creators and trickle-down economics don’t work. And that’s because that style of economy isn’t focused on actual job-creators: small business owners. In Canada, approximately 70% of all private sector employees work for a small business, and 54% of them work for a ‘micro-enterprise’ that employs one to four people. Yet economic development offices in governments across the country spend most of their time focused on propping up international corporations that gladly take in new investment dollars as they continue to send more jobs out of the country.
If we’ve learned anything from the Great Recession at the beginning of the last decade, it’s that big companies will reward their top earners, shrink their workforce, and eventually leave once they’ve made up their brief losses – all on the Canadian taxpayer’s dime. The top priority of Canada’s next finance minister must be the people of Canada and creating a more even playing field for ‘the little guy’ in order to tip the scales back towards economic fairness.
The appointment of Chrystia Freeland as Canada’s first female finance minister could prove to be a great one. Increasingly known as the ‘Minister for Everything’ (after being handed tough file after tough file and succeeding on every front), Freeland also literally wrote the book on the gap between the 1% and the rest of us in the 99%. She’s covered financial markets around the world as a journalist and would be able to go toe to toe with anyone in any boardroom. But she also hails from a family of Alberta farmers and has some of the same life experience as the Canadians who have never stepped foot in a boardroom. And she’s a woman and a working mother at a time when those demographics are disproportionately wearing the impacts of the recession.
Most importantly, she appears aligned with the Prime Minister on the historic nature of this moment and the need to put forward a plan that will help Canadian families across the country recover and thrive. What will that plan look like? We’ll know more by October when a new Throne Speech is delivered.
My own hope is that it invests heavily in small business supports, boosts Employment Insurance during the transition between it and CERB, delivers portable health benefits during a time when so many are out of work, and begins to look at the long-term transformation of Canada as a more economically just nation.
Two devastating recessions a decade apart mean we can no longer trust that people can afford to get by on their own. Younger generations have seen their potential lifetime earnings completely derailed while the cost of living, especially when it comes to housing, continues to spiral out of control. Add in the huge financial costs of climate change to individuals, if it continues to go largely unanswered, and it becomes very clear that the economic trauma heading toward younger generations is only just beginning.
But that can be headed off by a finance minister and a prime minister that ground this new phase of their economic and social policy in lifting up, as they often say, ‘the middle class and those working hard to join it’.