Finance Minister Bill Morneau dodged questions about his use of numbered companies to hold investments Friday, suggesting he does not have to defend his personal financial choices to journalists.
After a week of questions about his own fortune, Morneau showed signs of exasperation during an event in Waterloo, Ont., where he was pitching the government's "step back" on proposed changes to the small business tax regime.
Morneau batted away a question about why he held some of his investments in an Alberta company rather than one domiciled in Ontario, where he lives.
"So, is the question why are they numbered companies and they don't have names?" he said with a shrug.
"Seriously, what I've done is expose all my assets to the ethics commissioner. The process we have in our country isn't that I report to journalists on my personal situation. It's that I report to the ethics commissioner and I make sure she fully understands my situation so we can get to the recommendations."
Owning investments in a personal holding company can provide various tax and non-tax benefits. Income in an operating company can face a lower tax rate by using small business deductions, for example.
Morneau said he has now agreed to do more than what the commissioner, Mary Dawson, recommended he do when he took office.
Morneau did not place his considerable holdings in a family company — the publicly traded human resources firm Morneau Shepell — in a blind trust because Dawson had only recommended the creation of an "ethical screen" to ensure he wasn't making policy decisions to his own financial benefit. The screen was to be administered by Morneau's chief of staff.
"I expected what finance ministers before me had done, doing what the other 337 MPs had done, was the right way to address that issue, and what I found is that there's noise around this and people like you asking about specific issues in my personal finances."
Morneau said he will now divest the remaining one million shares he holds in the company "he built for 25 years," to put such questions to rest.
"I'm going to take all my assets and put them in a blind trust," he said. "Nobody else before me has gone this far."
The Conflict of Interest Act stipulates a public office holder cannot personally hold "controlled assets" — like shares, mutual funds, exchange-traded funds — but is silent on what is required if those assets are held by a holding company in which the minister has a controlling stake.
In a statement sent to CBC News, a spokesperson for Dawson said the commissioner has recommended — on at least two separate occasions before the House of Commons ethics committee — that parliamentarians address the loophole relating to indirect holdings, and expand the act's scope to cover investments held in a holding company or "other similar mechanisms."
'Not the kind of ethics and honesty that we expect'
Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre said it's a clear ethical lapse for the minister to own shares in a company he regulates as finance minister.
"It has always been understood that ministers are banned from owning stocks. What he did is came in and found a loophole he said, 'What if I have those stocks in a numbered company in Alberta? Then it's the company that owns the stocks and not me.'
"He can brag that he was clever enough to find a trick around the spirit of the law, but that's not the kind of ethics and honesty that we expect," Poilievre said in an interview with CBC News.
Poilievre said Morneau should "come clean" with the assets he holds in the other "eight or nine numbered companies or trust funds" in which he has an ownership stake.
At least four of those companies are used to hold real estate interests. The minister is also a beneficiary of his wife's trust fund. Nancy McCain is a member of the wealthy family that owns New Brunswick-based McCain Foods, a company best known for its frozen french fries.