OTTAWA — Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer demanded Bill Morneau hand in his resignation Wednesday as political rivals intensified their attacks on a finance minister mired in controversy for weeks.
But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau launched a spirited defence of Morneau, accusing the Tories of engaging in baseless personal attacks that they won’t repeat outside the House of Commons for fear of being sued.
“After careful consideration, in my capacity of leader of the Opposition, I am officially calling on Bill Morneau to resign as finance minister,” Scheer said shortly before question period, where the issue dominated debate.
He advised Trudeau to fire Morneau if he refused to step aside on his own.
But the prime minister said he still has full confidence in Morneau and then went on the offense against the Opposition.
“The fabrications and the personal attacks, the slinging of mud in this place, and hiding behind parliamentary privilege, is not what Canadians expect from this place,” Trudeau said.
The push for Morneau’s departure is yet another challenge to a finance minister who’s been forced to navigate several ethics-related controversies since the summer.
In July, he proposed tax-system changes that enraged small-business owners to the point he eventually had to back off elements of his plan.
Morneau has also faced intense political pressure over how he handled his personal financial arrangements after coming to office. The questions focused on his shares in the human resources firm Morneau Shepell, which was built by his family and for which he was executive chairman until his 2015 election win.
After the controversy erupted, he sold off the remainder of his holdings in the company — worth about $21 million — and vowed to place his other substantial assets in a blind trust. Morneau donated to charity the difference between what the shares were worth at the time of the sale and their value in 2015 when he was first elected — an amount estimated at about $5 million.
The federal ethics commissioner also fined Morneau $200 for failing to disclose a private corporation, in which he is a director, that owns a villa in France. Morneau had disclosed ownership of the villa to Mary Dawson but, due to what his office called an administrative oversight, failed to disclose that ownership was through a corporation.
Then came conflict-of-interest allegations over proposed pension reform, spearheaded by Morneau, that opponents have alleged would bring him personal financial benefit. The federal ethics commissioner has launched a formal examination into the matter.
This week, the Tories and the New Democrats have been grilling the Liberals about his earlier, late-2015 sale of shares in Morneau Shepell — a transaction that took place ahead of a tax change announcement.
During Monday’s question period, Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre claimed Morneau’s December 2015 announcement, which unveiled the government’s plan raise income taxes on the highest earners, caused the entire stock market to drop — including the value of Morneau Shepell shares.
Poilievre said 680,000 shares in the company were sold off roughly a week earlier in a move that saved the owner half a million dollars.
On Dec. 7, 2015, the day of Morneau’s tax-change announcement, the Toronto stock index fell 2.4 per cent for its single weakest day of the quarter. Oil prices fell by about five per cent, which one bank economist said may have been responsible for much of the weakness in the market.
Nevertheless, the Conservatives have been repeatedly asking Morneau all week if he was the person who sold those Morneau Shepell shares.
Morneau initially sidestepped those questions, but on Wednesday he acknowledged he did sell off some shares shortly after coming into office in the fall of 2015. He did not provide specifics on the timing of the sale nor how many shares were involved.
On Monday, Poilievre went so far as to suggest that Morneau used his inside knowledge as a minister to benefit himself financially, telling the Commons that “it is actually the responsibility of government to ensure that no minister ever uses inside knowledge to benefit from transactions on the stock market.”
Morneau called that insinuation “absurd” and threatened Tuesday to sue the Conservatives. He dared the Tories to repeat their suggestion outside the House and away from the shield of parliamentary privilege, which gives MPs legal protection from libel and defamation laws.
And again on Wednesday, Morneau and Trudeau took turns challenging the Tories to utter the insinuation outside the House.
“If the member opposite has an allegation, if he wants to say something, he should say what he means,” Morneau said in a response to a question from Scheer.
“He should say it here, he should say it now, he should stand up and say it — and then he should go out into the foyer and say it again.”
The Conservatives, meanwhile, added a new argument to their charge that Morneau personally benefited from the tax announcement, pointing out that it prompted some market analysts to encourage wealthier shareholders to sell off some their stock before the changes came into effect on Jan. 1, 2016.
“The members of the opposition cannot even keep their story straight in their attacks,” scoffed Trudeau.
“For weeks they demanded that the finance minister sell his shares. Now, they are saying that he should not have sold his shares. They are all over the place in their attacks, because that is just what they do.”
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Andy Blatchford, The Canadian Press