Madam Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the member for Louis-Saint-Laurent.
I rise today regretfully to speak in support of the motion before us. I am regretful, not because I do not support the motion moved by the third party, which I certainly do, but because we find ourselves debating not only the finance minister's original deliberate violation of the spirit of the Conflict of Interest Act and his subsequent actions, which, by all accounts, have enriched the minister as a result of his original decisions, but as well, the minister's apparent inability and refusal to recognize his several lapses of judgment, his unwillingness to accept responsibility for his poor decisions and actions, his attempt to shift responsibility and to blame the Ethics Commissioner, and, as important, his refusal to apologize to Canadians.
When an adult faces choices, he or she exercises judgment. For decades, long before the Conflict of Interest Act, with its various provisions, was passed into law in 2004, ministers of the crown either placed their wealth, including those fortunate enough to have family fortunes, into blind trusts or divested themselves of those holdings, which otherwise might benefit from their actions as public office holders, that is, as ministers.
The Prime Minister's mandate letter to the finance minister, when he was sworn in two years ago, was not specific in these details, but the PM stated, “As Minister, you must ensure that you are aware of and fully compliant with the Conflict of Interest Act”. As well, the Prime Minister stressed that “you 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.” I repeat, “closest public scrutiny”. “This is an obligation that is not fully discharged by simply acting within the law.”
The Prime Minister also pointed out:
If we want Canadians to trust their government, we need a government that trusts Canadians. It is important that we acknowledge mistakes when we make them. Canadians do not expect us to be perfect—they expect us to be honest, open, and sincere in our efforts to serve the public interest.
Canadians have learned very well that the Liberal government is far from perfect. In fact, in so many ways it is far from perfect, but we are here today because trust has been violated. We are talking about standards here, and because neither the finance minister nor the Prime Minister has been willing to acknowledge the many mistakes made by both in this sorry affair, this scandal is entirely of their own making. The finance minister has told us that the Ethics Commissioner advised him to choose a third choice between a blind trust or divestment, a choice not taken by any other minister of the Liberal government.
The Ethics Commissioner is on the public record saying that she informed the finance minister that there was that third way. We do not know whether she specifically red-flagged that third alternative in so many words as a loophole that she had already recommended the government should close, but I believe that any reasonable adult, certainly anyone with the business experience of the finance minister, not to mention the many financial advisors he has at his beck and call, would see that third way as a loophole that offends not only express intent of the Conflict of Interest Act but also the spirit of the law.
Then there is the matter of Bill C-27, the act tabled in the finance minister's name, that would make a number of significant amendments to the Pension Benefits Standards Act. The minister, in his previous life, spoke of the need for exactly these same sorts of amendments, amendments that his family firm, Morneau Shepell, would use to expand its client base and grow the company. We know that by not divesting all of his millions of shares in the family company, the minister had already seen his shares increase significantly in value. At the time of his election, shortly before being appointed finance minister, the shares of Morneau Shepell traded at around $15 a share. They have since increased to more than $20 a share.
However, worse than the basic violation of the spirit of the Conflict of Interest Act was the minister's sponsorship of Bill C-27, which would, as the motion before us states, “reasonably be expected to [further] profit Morneau Shepell and the Minister of Finance in light of his continued ownership of shares...through [a numbered] company he controls”, which he will continue to profit from until his belated decision to sell those shares in what he described as an “orderly” fashion. We see here a clear and evident example, a textbook example, of conflict when the minister is in charge of regulating an industry in which he has a significant personal interest.
I will reflect back on the Prime Minister's mandate letter to the Finance Minister, and the specific direction that he arrange his private affairs to bear the closest public scrutiny. Someone, the Finance Minister, and any who were aware of his choice two years ago, should have heard alarm bells, which brings me to questions that the Finance Minister and the Prime Minister have refused to answer in the House or anywhere else: When did the Finance Minister inform the Prime Minister? When did the Prime Minister learn that the Finance Minister had neither put his holdings into a blind trust or divested all of his shares two years ago?
Last week, the latest revelations from investigative journalists, the Ethic Commissioner herself in media interviews, and finally the Finance Minister himself, confirmed that he had been informed by the commissioner of a technical gap in the Conflict of Interest Act, a capital “L” loophole, if you will, that no other member of the current Liberal cabinet, and no other member of previous governments, to my knowledge, exploited. However, he used it again, in clear and deliberate violation of the spirit of the act, to push his considerable stock holdings in the company that bears his name through that loophole. This is in stark contrast to the months of hollow, so-called consultations on tax reform proposals dropped on Canadians in the middle of the summer, which were aimed at alleged loopholes too long exploited, it was said, by hard-working, middle-class small businesses, in effect characterizing Canada's hardscrabble, hard-working, middle-class small business owners as tax cheats.
It is important to remember that this is an attack on plumbers, pizza shop owners, farmers, dentists, and doctors. These so-called reforms have been pitched by bureaucrats, academics, and theoreticians inside the Finance Department for years. It is also important to remember that these reforms have been pitched to a succession of previous finance ministers, both Conservative and Liberal, and flatly rejected for all of the reasons put forward now by practising tax and pension management experts, and the thousands of middle-class self-employed entrepreneurs who see this as an unfair and destructive attack on family businesses and their employees.
There was a way that the Finance Minister might have avoided the deepening outrage and protest across the country. He might have responded by saying that he was surprised by the tens of thousands of responses, and that he needed to extend the so-called consultation period, with real consultations across the country, to familiarize himself with the multitude of different ways his reforms would negatively impact hard-working taxpayers. Instead, the Finance Minister and the Prime Minister doubled down and framed their refusal to amend or scrap the worst of the proposals in language that came dangerously close to the divisive characterizations of class war.
The Finance Minister, as has been previously quoted, has described the nation-wide opposition and our criticism of his clumsily proposed tax reforms as a distraction. It is a distraction, and a day-to-day still-deepening distraction of his own making. Now, the Prime Minister seems to have lost confidence in the Finance Minister. The PM's bigfooting of the Finance Minister at a press conference last week, saying that he would answer the minister's question, sent an ominous, not to mention arrogant message to the minister and to Canadians.
The motion before us calls on the government to immediately close these loopholes and apologize to the House and to all Canadians.