Bill Morneau shows a flash of temper in the small-business tax battle

The finance minister isn't easy to rile, but this protracted policy fight is now testing his patience

(Nathan Denette/CP)

Finance Minister Bill Morneau is usually so unflappable, his voice so unmodulated, his black brogues so unscuffed, that it almost came as a relief to hear him sounding more than just exasperated, maybe even a little hot under his well-ironed collar, answering reporters’ questions after an appearance today before the House finance committee.

Inside the committee room, Morneau had been subjected to yet another round of rankling questions about his small-business tax proposals from Pierre Poilievre, the Conservative finance critic whose rare knack for getting under the skin of his political adversaries reminds me of the way Claude Lemieux used to drive his NHL opponents to rash retaliations.

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Morneau kept his cool as usual inside the committee room. By the time he faced a scrum of reporters outside, though, he’d had enough and let himself get a little worked up. He accused a small minority of well-to-do small business owners and their advisors of stoking needless anxiety among farmers and entrepreneurs of modest means, who won’t be affected, he vowed, by his tax reforms that target the wealthier few.

READ: How Bill Morneau found himself at war with small business

“What’s clear to me,” Morneau charged, “is that people who don’t like what we’re doing are trying to make sure that other people don’t understand what it is that we’re doing.”

Pressed about farmers who worry his proposal to change treatment of capital gains will make it harder for them to pass on farms to their children, he pledged that won’t happen. But he went further, angrily suggesting that they are being cynically misled to the point of making bad tax-planning moves before his reforms are even firmed up.

“In the specific case of farmers,” he said, “we believe that there is misinformation, and there are people out there trying to encourage people to take decisions at the wrong time. We’re listening. We’re going to get this right. Their family will still be able to be in the farm. They will still be able to transfer the farm to the next generation.”

And he accused his political opponents of fostering and exploiting groundless fears. “The members of the opposition who are giving misinformation about what these proposals might or might not do are not doing Canadians a service,” Morneau fumed. “What they are doing is scaremongering.”

He said all this in the wide, sunlit hallway of a recently renovated historic building just off Parliament Hill. Waiting patiently and within easy earshot for his turn in front of the cameras was Poilievre. At one point, when Morneau, clearly growing frustrated, chided a reporter for not letting him finish an answer, Poilievre uttered a soft but audible, “Oh, minister.”

READ: The problem with Trudeau’s high road

When the critic stepped to the spot where the minister had just been letting off steam, his interpretation of what he had just heard was interesting. “He understands,” Poilievre said of Morneau, “that farmers and local businesses are furious that he and his government have attacked them with this draconian high-tax plan, and he’s feeling that backlash, his MPs are speaking out against him. He’s getting frustrated and defensive, and he’s even snarling at journalists.”

Any concern is appreciated, but I’ve known journalists to be snarled at worse without suffering lasting damage to their self-esteem. Poilievre’s more important point was that he suspects Morneau is preparing to “backpedal.” That’s one way to see it. From the outset, Morneau has stressed that he means to adjust his proposals in response to criticisms raised in the consultation process he launched back in July.

That sort of adjustment is clearly in the works. For instance, there’s the rather technical—but still key—matter of entrepreneurs pleading for a way to save that lets them defer tax, but also offers more flexibility than the RRSPs that are typically at the core of the savings strategies of Canadians who don’t own businesses. “That’s something we’ve heard from small businesses and something that we are listening to closely,” Morneau said today.

And there you have a snippet of the measured and moderate voice that Canadians are growing accustomed to hearing from Morneau, and maybe tuning out. He might find, if this policy battle keeps heating up in the coming weeks, that the less familiar voice he gave reporters a taste of today might come in handy, too.