/All joking aside, Trudeau isn’t doing much to convince the business community he’s serious

All joking aside, Trudeau isn’t doing much to convince the business community he’s serious

Poor Mona Fortier. She was so close to a title that would look great on any resume: associate minister of finance. But whoever runs Team Trudeau decided that moniker wasn’t descriptive enough. So Fortier, a member of Parliament from Ottawa, will spend the next phase of her career being introduced as the Minister of Middle Class Prosperity as well.

No need to spend a lot of time on the stupidity of that title. Chris Selley has already done so wonderfully in the National Post. “The title is kind of odd,” John Manley, the former minister of just about everything in Jean Chrétien’s government, including finance, said in an interview.

The unveiling of the cabinet was done without mandate letters, so we don’t know yet what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expects of his 36 ministers. I asked for an interview with Canada’s new junior finance minister, but her assistant said that she was too busy too talk. No doubt. Whenever we can speak, I pledge to take Fortier more seriously than the Prime Minister’s Office did when it was handing out titles.

But I said we wouldn’t dwell on superficial stuff. What does the new cabinet say about how the Trudeau government will approach the economy? That matters, as one of Fortier’s first formal briefings surely will include the latest from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which on Nov. 22 predicted that the global economy will expand 2.9 per cent this year, the weakest rate since the financial crisis a decade ago.

The OECD sees Canada’s gross domestic product growing only 1.5 per cent in 2019, compared with three per cent in 2017 and about two per cent in 2018. It also doubts the economy is on track to grow much faster for the next two years. The OECD called on the Bank of Canada to cut interest rates half a point by early next year, and advised governments against aggressive spending cuts at this time.

“Business confidence and investment in Canada are projected to recover only gradually,” the OECD said. “Exports and imports will remain subdued. Private consumption will support growth, but households will remain reluctant to spend from their income due to uncertainty, a slowing labour market and deleveraging.

Canadian retail sales increased 0.5 per cent in the third quarter, compared with a 1.1 per cent gain in the second quarter, Statistics Canada reported Nov. 22. Households “haven’t been very apt to spend in recent quarters, resulting in virtual stagnation in real retail sales since early 2018,” said Royce Mendes, an economist at CIBC World Markets.

The appointment of a minister for the middle class will do nothing to correct the business community’s impression of Trudeau.

The trouble with the first Trudeau government from the perspective of the business community was that it came across as entirely unserious about economic policy.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau, who was re-upped on Nov. 20, was afforded none of the stature that typically comes with his position. Trudeau was right to turn his back on balanced budgets, but he failed to tell a convincing story for why he was content to allow the deficit to grow wider and wider.

The government’s struggle to spend the infrastructure money in a timely manner appeared to be a lesson for what happens when you overpopulate your leadership team with thinkers and dreamers, at the expense of ministers with extensive real-life experience in business and politics.

The appointment of a minister for the middle class will do nothing to correct the business community’s impression of Trudeau.

“I’m looking for the government to do less virtue signalling and more listening to people,” said Manley, who is now special business adviser at Bennett Jones LLP, a law firm based in Toronto. “They were taken to the woodshed. I hope they know that.”

If John Ivison, the National Post’s political columnist, is right, the cabinet barely matters because a cabal of unelected advisers makes all the big decisions. And from the outside, it sure looks like the prime minister and his whisperers have created a system made to keep economic ministers busy figuring out who is in charge of what.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland and Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson lead the cabinet’s economy and climate committee. Morneau will have Fortier underfoot at Finance, while Navdeep Bains, who returns as innovation minister, will share his department’s resources with Economic Development Minister Mélanie Joly.

I’m looking for the government to do less virtue signalling and more listening to people

John Manley, former cabinet minister

Also in the picture: Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau, Transport Minister Marc Garneau, Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault, Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna, Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino, Trade Minister Mary Ng and Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Reagan.

There’s your economic-crisis committee, more or less.

Manley said junior ministers aren’t necessarily a bother, and he included Maurizio Bevilacqua, the one-time minister of state for finance, in just about everything because he liked having “another pair of political eyes.”

However, under Jean Chrétien, everyone knew what his or her job was. At Industry, Manley had little involvement with the day-to-day oversight of the regional development agencies, but they required his signature to spend money. Ministers were given a lot of responsibility and it was their fault if they screwed up. Harsh, but it left room for the prime minister to get involved before it was too late.

There might be a lesson for the current prime minister in that. “When the PM owns everything, it’s all on him,” Manley said.

Financial Post

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