Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with my colleague from Jonquière, which I think is an excellent idea.
It is with some interest, and I suppose with some regret almost, that I read the opposition day motion that came from the Conservatives today. The regret is only in the sense that we have to spend a day of Parliament asking for something that should be open and obvious to everybody, and that we have to go before Parliament, have a vote in Parliament, to ask one of the highest office holders in the land to be open and transparent with Canadians about a perceived and, I would argue, real potential conflict of interest within his portfolio.
I would be surprised if, by the end of the day, the minister does not just walk into Parliament and place the documents in front of all Canadians. Clearly, that would solve a whole series of problems that we have with the current situation, which is highly unusual. I am not sure I have ever seen an opposition day motion like this. I am not sure I have ever seen a finance minister in this particular mess, which is a mess entirely of his own making and circumstance.
I go back to the Prime Minister's own proclamation, his dedication to Canadians, which said:
...transparent government is good government. If we want Canadians to trust their government, we need a government that trusts Canadians.
It seems self-evident to me that, if the government is saying to trust it, then the government must also trust Canadians. What we would ask the Finance Minister to trust Canadians with is that, if he is acting ethically, if he is acting in a way that does not personally benefit and enrich him and his family, then he should be able to tell us.
Now, we have a couple of concerns with the way the Finance Minister has conducted himself, but I want to walk through this.
If we go back almost a full two years to October 28, 2015, to an interview with The Globe and Mail talking about the Finance Minister coming in, the article reads that under the conflict act the Finance Minister “would be expected to either sell off his assets or place them in a blind trust”.
The Finance Minister, prior to public life, in private life, ran a company called Morneau Shepell very successfully. He owned some $43 million in shares, give or take, we think, but we do not know. He has been asked 14 or 15 times now if he is still in possession of those shares, if he still owns assets, and if he is involved in the company. However, each and every time, he has refused to answer.
Yesterday, at a press conference with the Prime Minister, there was this very uncomfortable moment when the press were asking the Finance Minister a direct question that only the Finance Minister could answer. As he moved forward to the microphone to answer, to be accountable to Canadians, as the Prime Minister demanded in his orders to cabinet, the Prime Minister said that he would be answering the questions. The Finance Minister had to take a step back and could be heard to say, “He's the boss”. The question that then relates to this is whether the Finance Minister has the confidence of the Prime Minister.
He has certainly lost a great deal of confidence with Canadians, particularly in the small business sector, and particularly with Canadians who watch and realize that the Finance Minister owns a private villa in France, had sheltered it under a private company to avoid paying taxes if he were then to pass it on to his children, while promoting legislation that would have prevented the same ability for farmers to pass their farm on to their kids. The contradiction of this is incredible. The Finance Minister actually used the tax code in such a way as to shelter his private villa in Provence from taxes, while promoting policies that would not allow a farmer to sell his or her farm to his or her kids.
We would think of that as out of touch, clearly, but then we start to step into the ethics of the question. We raised the concern earlier today. Late last night, I wrote to the Ethics Commissioner asking her to launch a second investigation into the Finance Minister's dealings. This is highly regrettable, because the Finance Minister, as of two years ago in an interview, said:
I suspect all my assets will go into a blind trust.
I've already communicated with the Ethics Commissioner in that regard.
I, like most Canadians, believed him. Why? Well, it was because of course this is what he would have to do. The conflicts of interest, particularly for a finance minister, are obvious. If a finance minister owns assets, millions of dollars of shares in a company that deals with financial matters, the minister simply could not maintain his or her interests and would either have to sell the shares or put them in a blind trust where he or she could no longer affect them, as every finance minister I have ever heard of has done in the past.
What makes this finance minister special? Special would be one word for it. This is unprecedented. I have not seen a finance minister put himself in not only such a perception but actual conflict of interest with his duties.
Let us take one example. It is not just the budget, not just regulating banks, not just trying to guide the economy and the effect that could have on his private holdings, but a specific example is a bill the finance minister promoted in Parliament. He sponsored it. It is Bill C-27, which changes the way pensions work in Canada, leading to the option of targeted benefit plans, which is what they are called. It is a transition from one to another. New Brunswick put this through. Who was the lead consultant when New Brunswick went through changing its pension plan to one of these targeted benefit plans? It was Morneau Shepell. That is interesting. The finance minister, while he was head of Morneau Shepell, promoted targeted benefit plans, these specific types of insurance schemes. Because his company worked on that and made profit from it, he made money from it.
He then became finance minister, did not sell his shares in the company, kept his interests there, then promoted a piece of legislation that would help out that very same company that he is still involved with, from which he still benefits. It is jaw-dropping. If this is not the very definition of conflict of interest, I do not know what is. In future years, when Canadians studying politics look through the handbook of political terms, they will see “conflict of interest” and will see a picture of our finance minister there. I have never seen anything like this. There is no blind trust, no selling off the shares, but placing himself directly in the way of a conflict of interest accusation, so we have written to the finance minister.
Let me quote again. This was in a declaration made from the Prime Minister's Office two years ago:
Our plan for an open and accountable government will allow us to modernize how the Canadian government works, so that it better reflects the values and expectations of Canadians. At its heart is a simple idea: open government is good government. For Canadians to trust our government we must trust Canadians, and we will only be successful in implementing our agenda to the extent that we earn and keep this trust.
Here is the good part. It is from the Prime Minister's Office, from his own lips.
To be worthy of Canadians’ trust, we must always act with integrity. This is not merely a matter of adopting the right rules, or of ensuring technical compliance with those rules. As Ministers, you and your staff must uphold the highest standards of honesty and impartiality, and both the performance of your official duties and the arrangement of your private affairs should bear the closest public scrutiny.
The last bit seems relevant to today, does it not? Has the finance minister sold his shares in Morneau Shepell? We have asked 14 times. He has refused to answer. Does he still have those shares? We do not know. Did he promote a bill that would in fact elevate the value of those shares? Yes, he did.
There is no particular joy taken in watching the credibility of government, the trust and faith that Canadians need to hold in their government, take another hit. Lord knows we have had enough of them, from the Senate scandals to personal scandals. I have not in my 14 years, as brief a time as that has been here in Parliament, seen anything close to this, where the appearance and obvious example of a conflict of interest has existed.
There is only one way to attempt to alleviate the cloud that sits over the finance minister right now, and that is if he comes forward with full disclosure, if he follows the documents he signed, the promises he made to Canadians when he came into cabinet, if he follows his own words, “I suspect all my assets will go into a blind trust” and that he had already communicated with the Ethics Commissioner in that regard, and if he follows the words of the Prime Minister: “If we want Canadians to trust their government, we need a government that trusts Canadians”.
I do not know how the finance minister will get himself out of this mess. It will be incredibly difficult. I do not know how he does his job right now. Distractions at work prevent us sometimes from being good at what we need to do. Canadians need him to be good at what he does. Canadians need him to be focused on the task at hand. Canadians need him to be honest and consistent and have the highest ethical standards and integrity. I am not sure those things are true today.