OTTAWA — Conservatives demanded to know Tuesday whether Finance Minister Bill Morneau had sold his shares in his family company, suggesting that if not, he'd broken the law.
"The law requires that ministers put their assets in a blind trust within 120 days of being appointed, but we have learned that the finance minister chose not to put his family fortune into a blind trust," Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer stated as he led off question period.
"The law is in place to prevent conflicts of interest, and Canadians deserve to know whether the minister is using his position to benefit his family company.
"The question is simple. When did the finance minister sell his shares in Morneau Shepell?"
Morneau Shepell is a human resources, pension and benefit management firm founded by the minister's father.
Morneau wasn't in the House to answer. Neither was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The task of defending the beleaguered finance minister fell instead to Government House Leader Bardish Chagger.
"Since taking office, the minister of finance has worked with the ethics commissioner to ensure that her every recommendation and all conflict of interest rules were followed," she said.
Question asked 13 times
The Tories asked variations of the same question 13 times.
"When did the minister sell his shares?" Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre asked.
"The daily revelations of the minister of finance show nothing but hypocrisy," commented Conservative deputy leader Lisa Raitt. "When did the finance minister sell his shares in Morneau Shepell?"
Tory health critic Marilyn Gladu kept it simple: "When will the minister finally come clean with Canadians and tell them whether he still owns shares of Morneau Shepell?"
I'm telling you, 100 per cent he did follow the rules. Daniel Lauzon, spokesman for Bill Morneau
Morneau's parliamentary secretary, Joël Lightbound, ducked the question by telling the House that the finance minister "would always work with the ethics commissioner to respect the rules that govern MPs."
Morneau's spokesman Daniel Lauzon also declined to tell HuffPost Canada whether Morneau had sold his shares but said, "I'm telling you, 100 per cent he did follow the rules."
Federal ethics commissioner Mary Dawson told reporters Tuesday that she never told Morneau he needed to put his assets in a blind trust.
Assets held by a corporation are OK, commissioner says
She later said on CTV's Power Play that Morneau isn't required to put his assets in a blind trust or sell his assets because he holds them "indirectly."
"All of the assets that people are worried about are held by a corporation, not by Mr. Morneau," she said. "This is where the confusion arises ... The way the law stands now, it is only things that are directly held."
Morneau reportedly owns 2,066,480 shares in Morneau Shepell, worth approximately $43 million, through a numbered company in Alberta.
But Duff Conacher, of the watchdog group Democracy Watch, believes "any share is a controlled asset" and he questioned Dawson's advice. "You can't own shares indirectly, it's not possible... If it's through a numbered company that he is a director of, that is owning the shares."
He sent out several news releases sounding the alarm. "[The] ethics commissioner [is] allowing federal Liberal finance minister Morneau to violate federal ethics law," he said.
Democracy Watch is fighting Dawson and the federal government in court. Conacher believes the ethics commissioner, who is on her third six-month renewable contract extension, is holding the job at pleasure of the government. Conacher is also concerned Dawson created "smokescreens" that don't prevent ministers with financial interests in certain decisions to excuse themselves from those discussions.
Under the Conflict of Interest Act, cabinet ministers must sell investments they control or place them in a blind trust. They are required to disclose publicly within 120 days after their election whether their assets have been sold or set up a blind trust.
Over at the NDP, the party is also concerned Morneau is financially benefitting from some of the Liberals' decision making. New Democrats wrote to Dawson Tuesday asking her to investigate the finance minister's vast financial holdings and the possibility he is benefiting from legislation his government tables in the House.
"The minister could make millions in profit resulting from a bill before Parliament that he wrote," Guy Caron, the parliamentary leader of the NDP said.
The NDP is particularly concerned that Morneau Shepell, a pension plan administrator, may reap additional business and revenue from Bill C-27, legislation that alters pension rules for federal workers.
The minister could make millions in profit resulting from a bill before Parliament that he wrote. Guy Caron
"As a massive investor in that company, Minister Morneau would personally benefit from the passage of that law," Nathan Cullen, the NDP ethics critic, said.
He called the situation perhaps "the most blatant conflict of interest in modern Canadian history."
In the House, Cullen noted that it wasn't just the opposition who believed until recently that the finance minister's investments were held in a blind trust. "That is what many Liberals believed as well," he said, pointing to a now-deleted tweet by a Liberal parliamentary secretary which falsely stated Morneau had put his shares in a blind trust.
Toronto MP Adam Vaughan made the claim in a tweet to Poilievre, the Tories' finance critic, earlier this month. This week, Vaughan apologized online for not "tweeting accurately" and said he had the "wrong information."
Cullen then quoted Vaughan's tweet to the Commons and asked the Liberal MP to "stand in this House and explain when he was told this untruth and who told it to him."
Vaughan, however, was at an announcement with Trudeau in Toronto Tuesday afternoon.
Instead, Chagger again rose from her seat. Morneau is working with the ethics watchdog, she said, before lauding the Liberal government's decision to uphold their campaign promise to reduce the small business tax rate from 10.5 per cent to nine per cent.
"So, I guess it's not just the finance minister who isn't taking questions today," quipped Cullen. "My friend from Toronto must have gotten the PM shove, as they call it," he added, sparking laughter with a reference to how Trudeau answered questions on Morneau's behalf at a press conference this week.