Trudeau's use of vaccine mandates as wedge issue polarized the debate in Canada, Morneau says

In an interview with CBC Radio's The Current, former finance Bill Morneau said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau further polarized the debate in Canada by making vaccine mandates a wedge issue during the last federal election. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press - image credit)
In an interview with CBC Radio's The Current, former finance Bill Morneau said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau further polarized the debate in Canada by making vaccine mandates a wedge issue during the last federal election. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Former finance minister Bill Morneau says he disagreed with the way Prime Minister Justin Trudeau used vaccine mandates as a wedge issue during the 2021 election, arguing it further polarized the debate in Canada.

"When you react to social media, when you react quickly to the 24/7 news cycle, you find yourself taking decisions, saying things that exacerbate the strongly held opinions of the people who are putting out those points of view," Morneau told host Matt Galloway on CBC Radio's The Current.

"The decision in the last election campaign to use the vaccine mandate as a wedge issue — I didn't see that as something that was helpful."

Morneau made the remarks during an interview to promote his new book — Where To From Here, A Path to Canadian Prosperity.

The former finance minister said in his book that by letting the news cycle and social media dictate his decision-making, Trudeau lost sight of fiscal prudence and the goal of securing Canada's long-term prosperity.

Morneau wrote that he wanted to ensure that the pandemic benefits received by Canadians were large enough to help them survive the lockdowns, but not large enough to act as a disincentive to work.

Morneau said that the government's focus on message management and communications ultimately trumped fiscal prudence.

"After looking at all the options and variables, we submitted a range of weekly incomes justified by our carefully considered calculations, only to be overruled by the prime minister and PMO, who rejected our recommendations in favour of distributing $2,000 per month or $500 a week because the numbers 'sounded good,'" Morneau wrote.

A healthy tension

The prime minister, Morneau said, is an "excellent communicator" but remained at arm's-length from the details of policy implementation.

"It appeared, in many instances, that the prime minister floated above the issues he confronted, choosing not to get his hands dirty in dealing with the mechanics and implications of the issues before him," Morneau wrote in his book.

While many senior executives in the business world also trust specialists to deal with the details, Morneau wrote, they have to understand and grapple with the messy aspects of getting things done.

"Good management, in any capacity, is not about conveniently turning a blind eye to remain above the fray," he wrote. "It's about keeping both eyes open to foresee risks and consequences, and taking steps to avoid or at least minimize them."

Morneau told CBC that he was keeping the long-term prosperity of the country in mind when making short-term economic and fiscal decisions, while Trudeau was focused on messaging.

"That meant that the time that he was spending was there, and not necessarily on those longer term challenges, things that consumed me about how we were going to be successful in the long term," he told Galloway.

Justin Tang/Canadian Press
Justin Tang/Canadian Press

Morneau said the fact that he and Trudeau were focused on different things did generate a healthy tension that led to progress on key issues like climate change and poverty reduction.

"We had a respectful and cordial relationship," Morneau told The Current. "We worked together. There was always tension, as there should be between a finance minister and prime minister, but he was always respectful to me and I certainly was always respectful to him."

But in his book, Morneau claimed that workplace tension often left him at odds with his boss — especially when it came time to decide how fast pandemic benefits should be wound down.

"We lost the agenda," Morneau wrote. "During the period when the largest government expenditures as a portion of GDP were made in the shortest time since the advent of World War II, calculations and recommendations from the ministry of finance were basically disregarded in favour of winning a popularity contest."

Inflation and the Bank of Canada

In his book, Morneau said that political operatives behind the scenes often manipulated policy direction for the sake of message management, usurping his role.

"Carefully crafted and strategically employed, they drove conclusions before an elected cabinet minister could finish reading the briefing documents, let alone reach a reasoned conclusion on the subject and consider the best way forward," he wrote.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has accused Bank of Canada Governor Tiff Macklem of "surrendering his independence" to Trudeau by embarking on a "money-printing" binge in response to the pandemic-driven economic crisis.

Poilievre has said he believes Macklem contributed to inflation through the bank's measures to support the economy during the pandemic, and that he'll fire the governor if he becomes prime minister.

Morneau, meanwhile, said he thought the Bank of Canada took the right approach to the pandemic and the subsequent inflation crisis.

"I believe that the separation of the Bank of Canada to make decisions that are in the right long-term health of Canada is critically important," he told Galloway.

"From my perspective, I've watched carefully and I've seen them reacting, in my estimation, appropriately to the inflation challenge."