Rookies and numerous Liberal MPs representing ridings won by close margins in 2015 are becoming “super nervous” about the ongoing explosive ethics controversies that have dogged Finance Minister Bill Morneau in recent weeks, and caused embarrassment to other senior Liberals over the last two years, and say these “unforced errors” give credence to the “false” perception the Liberals are “a bunch of entitled elitists” who are disconnected from average Canadians.
“It’s perception, right, it’s perception,” said one Liberal MP who spoke to The Hill Times on a not-for-attribution basis. “These are the issues that take [the attention] away from the other message [to help the middle class] that we want to focus on.”
The most recent ethical controversy hit the Liberals last month when Mr. Morneau (Toronto Centre, Ont.) came under fire, after CBC reported that he failed to disclose to the ethics commissioner that he owned a chateau in France through a numbered company registered in Alberta. Later, The Globe and Mail reported that Mr. Morneau held about $20-million worth of shares in Morneau Shepell—an international human resources and pension company, that the finance minister’s father founded and Mr. Morneau led as a senior executive—prior to getting elected as an MP, through a holding company, and had not placed those shares in a blind trust.
Mr. Morneau explained that he did not set up a blind trust for his shares because Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson advised him that he was not required to, as he was not directly controlling his assets. In October of last year, he sponsored C-27, the pension bill, leading opposition parties to accuse him of a conflict of interest for sponsoring government legislation that could provide material benefit to Morneau Shepell. Currently, Ms. Dawson is undertaking an investigation of whether Mr. Morneau was in a conflict of interest by introducing that legislation.
Last week, Mr. Morneau announced that he had sold all his shares in Morneau Shepell, and had made “a large donation” to a charity called the Toronto Foundation. He did not disclose the exact amount of the donation. Previously, Mr. Morneau had pledged to donate to charity any profits made since becoming the finance minister.
Making matters more complicated, the CBC reported last week that Stephen Bronfman, the chief fundraiser of the Liberal Party, a wealthy businessman and close friend of Mr. Trudeau, had been linked to a Cayman-Island based offshore company “well into the 2000s-despite his strong denials he had any involvement in the trust after 1998.”
Mr. Bronfman has denied any impropriety or illegality in relation to offshore tax avoidance.
In early November, the Ethics Commissioner’s Office confirmed to the CBC that Ms. Dawson has been looking into the Conservative Party’s allegations against Sports and Disabilities Minister Kent Hehr (Calgary Centre, Alta.) that he may have inappropriately used parliamentary resources to help out in his father’s election campaign for a seat on the Calgary Board of Education.
In January, Ms. Dawson started an investigation to determine if Mr. Trudeau violated the Ethics Act when he vacationed with his family and friends at the Aga Khan’s private island home in Bahamas late last year.
In September of last year, Gerald Butts, principal secretary to the prime minister, and Katie Telford faced questions about their moving expenses from Toronto to Ottawa, after Liberals won the 2015 election. Both paid back $65,000 of the $207,052 that they had received.
Meanwhile, a second Liberal MP told The Hill Times that his colleagues were “super nervous” because their party has made too many “unforced errors” related to ethical issues since forming government in 2015. He said that the main cause of concern for MPs is that the average Canadian doesn’t understand all the complicated details of those controversies, and they could draw “conclusions unfavourable to us.”
“People [MPs] don’t understand why are we even dealing with it, doesn’t make any sense,” said the second Liberal MP who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer his opinion candidly.
“They’re starting to be very concerned about the ethical implications of what’s going on, that’s essentially it. They feel the situation is not a happy one. The opposition parties are portraying us as a bunch of entitled elitists who are in government to look after themselves.”
Liberal MPs told The Hill Times that rookie MPs and MPs who were elected in the last election with close margins are especially concerned about the controversies, as every political mistake “affects” them and they could lose their seats. Another cause of concern for rookie MPs is that if they lose their seats in 2019, they will not receive a pension, as it requires at least six years of service in the House to be eligible to receive one. Some Liberal MPs and former senior Liberals have told The Hill Times that Mr. Trudeau should address this issue head on by shuffling Mr. Morneau to another portfolio, and the Liberal Party should disassociate itself from Mr. Bronfman.
“Every mistake affects MPs representing close ridings,” said a third MP.
Liberal sources told The Hill Times that MPs have talked about the ethics issues surrounding Mr. Morneau in regional caucuses in recent weeks, but there has been very little discussion in the weekly national caucus meetings. The reason for not having detailed discussions in the national caucus, sources said, is that no MP wants to annoy Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Morneau.
In the last election, the Liberals won 14 more seats than they needed to form a majority government. The margins of victory in the 14 tightest victories for the Trudeau Liberals in 2015 were between 0.2 and 2.5 per cent. Three current cabinet ministers won their ridings by a less than two per cent margin.
Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi (Edmonton Mill Woods, Alta.) won by 0.2 per cent margin, Mr. Hehr by 1.2 per cent, and Families, Children and Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos (Québec, Que.) won by 1.9 per cent.
In the 338-seat House, the Liberals won 184 seats, the Conservatives 99, the NDP 44, Bloc Québécois 10, and the Green Party one seat. To form a majority government, the winning party needed a minimum of 170 seats.
In 2015, there were 70 ridings nationally that were won or lost by a margin of five per cent or less. Of these, the Liberals won 34, the NDP 16, the Conservatives 15, and the Bloc Québécois won five. Twenty-eight of these closely fought ridings were in Ontario, 22 in Quebec, four in Alberta, nine in British Columbia, three in Manitoba, two in Saskatchewan, and one each in Newfoundland and Labrador, and New Brunswick.
Pollster Greg Lyle of Innovative Research said that the ethical questions raised about senior Liberals could potentially damage the brand of the prime minister and the Liberal Party. Even before getting elected as prime minister, there has always been a thread in Mr. Trudeau’s narrative as someone from the privileged class, and every new controversy brings the focus back to the prime minister, he said.
“The risks to the Liberals is that the debates [that are] emerging around Morneau and others brings a new focus back to this idea of the prime minister himself,” said Mr. Lyle. “So, the real threat is to prime minister’s own brand.”
He said he doesn’t see any serious political danger to the public’s perception about the Liberals at this time, but “it’s never the first straw, it’s always the last straw”
“So, this is a straw,” said Mr. Lyle. “You get three strikes, this is definitely a strike on ethics, not disclosing the shares, not disclosing the chateau, directly controlling shares, and it’s not good.”
Mr. Lyle also wondered how poorly Mr. Morneau and the PMO staff has handled the recent controversies.
“Their excuses have been lame. It’s not quite, ‘We’re entitled to our entitlements.’ It’s essentially, ‘I obeyed the letter of the law,’ when clearly you were breaking the spirit of the law,” said Mr. Lyle.
Liberal MP Bob Bratina (Hamilton East-Stoney Creek, Ont.), who won his riding by a 6.3 per cent margin, said rookie Liberal MPs who are nervous are so because they’ve only entered into the political arena recently. A former broadcaster, former city councillor, and former mayor of Hamilton, Mr. Bratina said that elections are not decided by one factor, but there are a variety of dynamics involved. He said he was not worried that these controversies would affect the Liberals in 2019.
“We’re talking about rookie MPs, and that nervousness comes from lack of political experience,” said Mr. Bratina. “I’m an experienced politician, although a new federal politician. I’ve been through the mill, I’ve been attacked by fellow councillors, by the local paper, and given up for dead by people who absorb the popular news or the social media.”
Mr. Bratina said that the recent ethics questions about Mr. Morneau and Mr. Bronfman are largely Question Period theatrics, and an average person is not paying any attention to the rhetoric coming out of the House.
“If those young rookies pay attention to their job and go out and talk to the people, people are relatively distant from the issues that you hear in the Question Period,” said Mr. Bratina. “Question Period is the worst part of this job.”
A spokesman for the Liberal Party declined to offer a comment, last week, on Mr. Bronfman’s link to the offshore accounts. But the party told The Hill Times last week that Mr. Bronfman has been working with the party in a volunteer capacity, and has no influence on its policies.
“Mr. Bronfman’s role with our party is as a volunteer, and has consisted of assisting the board on matters related to building on the Liberal movement’s strong grassroots fundraising support, not policy decisions,” said Anna Gainey, president of the Liberal Party in a statement sent to The Hill Times through a party spokesman. “His statement on this matter has provided very clear assurances that all rules are being followed, and I appreciate his continued volunteer efforts in support of the Liberal team’s work to build a better future for all Canadians.”
The Hill Times