Justin Trudeau’s money pit, and those working hard to join it

Paul Wells: Can the Aga Khan-vacationing, French villa-owning Liberals still be the great defenders of Canada’s middle class?

Canadian finance minister Bill Morneau (C) reacts after The Commonwealth Finance Ministers meeting family photo during the IMF/World Bank annual meetings in Washington, U.S., October 12, 2017. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

Canadian finance minister Bill Morneau (C) reacts after The Commonwealth Finance Ministers meeting family photo during the IMF/World Bank annual meetings in Washington, Oct. 12, 2017. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

Come on, be fair now: Who among us hasn’t forgotten a villa in France, and the tax-dodging shell company we set up in our own name to manage it? Bill Morneau’s a square gee, a straight shooter, and if two years of talking about the middle class! and those working! hard! to join it! didn’t jog hazy sun-drenched memories of le beau paysage provençal, well, let he who is without early administrative confusion cast the first stone.

Now the Trudeau government is in a bit of a pickle, because on Monday Morneau, who apparently still expects to be the finance minister by then, will meet a hastily-convened caucus of Liberal MPs to announce the terms of  his retreat from the battle for tax fairness. This is problematic, because while the Liberal caucus is definitely the one likeliest to contain MPs with perfectly legal tax-sheltered villas in Provence, not all of them are blessed in precisely that way. And some of the more plain-folks Liberals may wonder what, at this stage, still makes Morneau the ideal standard-bearer for the tax fairness crusade, such as it is. Can they rally behind his common-guy aura? His debating skill? His straight talk? His attention to detail? Uh-oh.

Suddenly everything that hurts the Liberals most is happening on terrain that Justin Trudeau sought, announced and has defended since long before he became prime minister: the mythical fight for the middle class against callous governments and greedy plutocrats.

Go back to Trudeau’s canonical February 2014 speech to the Liberal convention in Montreal. “To wealthier Canadians, I say this: the growth we have seen over the past three decades has been the product of a broadly supported agenda,” he said then. “The original promise of that agenda was that everyone would share in the prosperity that it creates. That hasn’t happened… If we don’t fix it, the middle class will stop supporting a growth agenda.”

Trudeau views Donald Trump as the physical expression of withdrawn middle-class support for a growth agenda. The reason Bill Morneau repeats his incantations to the middle class! and those working! hard! to join it! every time he rises in the House of Commons is because Trudeau has long believed a government is either on the right side of that fundamental issue or it will not long remain in government. And the Liberals did big things early to ensure they will head into another election with interesting things to say about defending the middle class: on child benefits, on broad-based tax relief, on pensions.

RELATED: Throw another minister on the bonfire: the ballad of Bill Morneau

But a government that spends $212,000 designing the cover of a budget document isn’t on the side of the little guy. A government that needs several days to decide it won’t tax employee benefits isn’t helping itself. A government led by a guy who vacations with the Aga Khan and then needs to be cornered into admitting it is sending serious mixed messages about who’s first in its hearts. And a government that’s after your doctor’s tax savings but is OK with Bill Morneau’s just might be clumsy enough to make you feel more sympathetic toward doctors.

At the heart of the government’s current confusion is Justin Trudeau’s peculiar relationship with large concentrations of money. You can define just about every Canadian prime minister in part through their relationship to money. Stephen Harper distrusted capital, was as immune to its attractions as anyone can be, and it helped him ride a populist instinct for years after his opponents should have realized he was far removed from the stereotypical Bay Street fat-cat Tory. Paul Martin was thigh-deep in Catholic guilt over his own wealth. Jean Chrétien was efficiently Janus-faced, smalltown populist on one hand, wired into the Desmarais billions on the other.

Trudeau’s harder to define, but there is something in him that views the very rich as inherently virtuous, or at least as so full of possibility that they must be treated as synonymous with virtue. Hence Davos. Hence the Microsoft CEO Summit and the Dock (Un)Conference, a Muskoka retreat where Trudeau met executives from GE and Facebook and Air Canada. Hence the 2016 meeting at Toronto’s opulent Shangri-La Hotel where he presented a slide deck—developed in collaboration with New York’s BlackRock investment firm—to representatives of the world’s most deeply-pocketed sovereign wealth funds, a few hundred billion in every chair in the room. And the cash-for-access fundraiser with the Chinese billionaires.

Everyone had a good chuckle when the Prime Minister justified the meeting with the rich Chinese guys as a part of his agenda to advance the interests of the mythical working class, but in his mind that’s precisely what he was doing. He wants to attract investment to Canada. He wants to do it in numbers that trail majestic trains of zeros. He can’t get that by schlepping down to Tim Horton’s and shaking the hands of regular folk. He might by schlepping down to Seattle to shake the hands of jillionaires. The prime minister’s full time critics view his dalliances with money as proof that he is merely starstruck; he is as certain that there is strategy in every mountain resort conference.

But if you keep making a face your mouth freezes that way, and the more time Trudeau spends chasing billions, the less attention his government devotes to mere millions—or to mere villas in France. There are dangers here: “white elephants and corruption,” I wrote 14 months ago. A few weeks later I added a third: “That this government will no longer seem populated by the sort of people most Canadians ever get to meet or know.”

The latest danger is a kind of socio-economic targeting error. The incorporated-business tax mess is a lot of things, but to the extent it was designed to reinforce the sense of fairness among the many who are tired of the depredations of the few, it was peculiar in its selection of the “few.” It’s true that if you’re incorporating and sprinkling and using all the other tricks Morneau targeted to keep your tax bill low, you’re almost certainly making more money than the average Canadian. But you’re probably not stinking rich, either. You’re probably making more than $200,000 and less than a few million. Which is an odd choice of target, because there really are fat cats out there, and by and large the Trudeau government is exquisitely solicitous of their care, feeding and comfort.

Chrystia Freeland famously wrote a book called Plutocrats. She was introduced into the Liberal party, when she first appeared as a candidate for the 2015 election, as the kind of person who spoke the language of fairness between the very rich and the rest of us. Her book opens with a fabulous vignette, the “coming-out party” for America’s plutocracy, the day of the $31 billion IPO for the Blackstone private equity firm. One of the company’s leaders, Pete Peterson, earned $1.88 billion on the day, which is handy because he needed to pay the bills for a party for his daughter Holly at New York’s Four Seasons Hotel. Holly paraphrased the dinner conversation: “If you’re going to have four houses, and you’re going to run four houses, it’s like you start spending some money.”

This is the government that got elected on a promise to go hunting after plutocrats. Somehow it keeps missing them. That’s becoming a serious political problem for that government. One wonders how long it will be before Justin Trudeau notices, but who’s going to tell him? Bill Morneau?



Justin Trudeau’s money pit, and those working hard to join it

  1. Amazing how many Cons there are on here.

    Cons that never noticed the financial mess Harp made of things. Not to mention all the other messes.

    But then maybe Justin doesn’t give out dinner invitations.

    • Is that your lame attempt to deflect?
      $212,000 in 2017
      $175,000 in 2016
      Harper spent $600 for the 2015 budget cover using stock photos.

      And please enlighten us on why Trudeau needs a senior marketing advisor in the Department of Finance. Who are they marketing to? Who are they competing against?

      • This is only another bump in the road for the liberals, the media loves car crashes, especially politicians being the victims of the tragedy, but its only early yet, i wouldn’t be worried about this to much. Never in the history of this country has a PM ever had to deal with such a erratic POTUS, this guy Trump is like the ‘ Yosemite Sam’ ready to blow holes right through the Nafta agreement, and not one other leader has expressed how, they would handle Trump. Trudeau needs to shore up his domestic flank, while trying hold his international flank together, and Trump is the ‘trump card’ for Trudeau. If Trudeau strikes a good deal for the Free Trade, than all of this other stuff, this domestic stuff, will just end up being nothing but noise. This whole free trade deal is taking a lot of work for this government, to play the rope a dope game. i would to see how the other one leader, and the lame duck handle this hot potato(Trump). Trudeau was right, Harper and his cronies have left such a mess of our financial situation, and Don on CTV can whine all he wants a bout Trudeau complaining about the mess the Cons left this country, the problem is Trudeau is right, the Harper government has left such a smell in our bureaucracy, that it will take a generation to repair.

        • 2 things:
          1. Trump said he would “blow holes in NAFTA”. What is it about Trump that you have a problem with? He is doing exactly has he promised.
          2. The Auditor General (appointed by Trudeau) has NOT had a problem with the “books”. There was NO mess.

          Are you in the habit of just making stuff up?

  2. Hey I think Paul Wells has changed lately. I actually like what he writes.

    • That’s not a good sign…..made him the biggest tin ear in the business.

      • It’s nice to see one journalist from MacLean’s not sucking up to the surfer dude. Great piece Mr. Wells!!

        • Surfer dude, selfie boy, pretty boy, junior, columnists innuendos, it’s all getting so tedious two years in.
          Of we’ll, can’t wait to read Rex this weekend.

  3. Whether Mr. Trudeau can afford costly vacations has nothing to do with his “work”. Have some nothing better to do than nit pick?

    • The point is that Trudeau did *not* pay for the vacation. He was a guest at the Aga Khan’s personal tropical island. But, yeah, such a vacation would normally be considered costly. And given that the Aga Khan heads an organization that receives federal money, such a nominally costly, but actually cost-free vacation could rightly be considered to constitute a conflict of interest.

  4. Sorry Mr. Wells, once more an article which is certainly not written for the ordinary Joe. Far too complicated and so stylistic that there is not much to be understood. Except perhaps your political leanings. Please write something in a simpler way so that more of us can understand the point.

    • I can do that for you in language hopefully you can clearly understand Lesley.
      Justin Trudeau is a rich, spoiled brat out of touch with reality and he surrounds himself with the same.

      • You are right, Jerome, that is pretty much all the article says. his one additional point, I think, is that it makes for bad politics. At least, I think that was a point – not quite sure.

  5. Wells is Con lapdog
    Except when he’s a Lib stooge
    It sucks to be Wells

    My fist haiku.

    • Uh, first haiku

  6. The implications of what Wells is saying are huge, not only for current political noise, but the future of the country long term.
    Two years in, is Trudeau, internationally, on US Trump file, on domestic issues, doing a good job or not? Out here in the boonies it looks like he’s representing and running the country better than expected. Wells implies this government has been a disaster.
    Wells and the rest of the Ottawa media have obviously written him off. There’s relentless criticism from all the pundits and columnists.
    I like going down the left hand column of National Newswatch every day.
    I don’t know if the Mexico speech was a success or a failure; I have to read somewhere else to find out what observers think of his UN and G summit importance.
    Another gotcha day in Ottawa.

    • The only economy improving policy Trudeau had was infractructure spending. And in that file he has spent next to nothing. Our economy is doing “well” because of an artificially depressed Canadian $ which has given a boost to manufacturing. What you don’t hear, however, is that our low $ costs Canadians about $150 billion/year in added cost for goods we import and consume. For a family of 4, that’s about $20,000/year. No wonder the middle class and the rest aren’t progressing.

      • On a scale of 1 to 10 how is Trudeau doing on the economy two years in?

        • Since 0 wasn’t one of your choices J.W., I’ll have to pick 1. You obviously didn’t read or didn’t understand my point above. Trudeau has done ZILCH for the economy. It’s the Bank of Canada, which is independent of the P.M. and government, which has kept Canadian interest rates arbitrarily low relative to the U.S. which has lowered the Canadian $, boosted mnufacturing exports and spurred on the Canadian economy. What Trudeau has done (as his father did) is amass enormous debt with nothing to show for it. If he wasn’t there, there’d be no change in the economy but we would have very limited debt if any.

          • Even Wells And Rex might give him better than 0.
            If I was Morneau I’d be in the south of France!

      • $20K per year! Good grief, Jerome. That isn’t right, man. That implies about a 20% inflation rate. I get that you want to believe we are in some sort of dystopian society but jeez.
        Anyway, no true conservative believes in the possibility of an artificially depressed Canadian dollar. Nobody controls the dollar. We are running a deficit, right? That means the government is spending more money than it is taking in. That means stimulus. If Harper were here we would have lower interest rates, lower government spending and, according to you, weaker manufacturing and a higher dollar? Frig man, if you are going to play economics you need to figure out a story that hangs together a bit better than that.

        • Fred-you need an economic’s lesson. Spending more money than we are taking in doesn’t boost the economy unless it’s spent on somthing that creates jobs. And the only policy in Trudeau’s kit bag that would do so is infrastructure spending which has yet to launch. Our economy is doing better than the U.S. because our depressed $ is helping with exports. However, if our econmy is doing better than the U.S. our interest rates should be higher than the U.S. When our interest rates are 0.1% higher than the U.S. the Canadian $ is at par with the U.S. That’s the history and you don’t have to be a Consevative to believe it.

  7. “Thank You” for this excellent commentary, Mr. Wells. (I believe that you must have hit! the nail! on the head!, given the degree of animosity of some of the other opinions written here!!!)

  8. This is an astonishingly off base article. To start with Harper has at least twice the personal wealth of Trudeau and his entire political and lobbying career has been in service to the uber wealthy.

    The Trudeau government had bent their policies to try to slow the increasing income disparity and that is where it has run into trouble with the press which in Canada is not sympathetic to this approach.

    The Trudeau government made immediate changes to the tax system and also to child benefits that helped the middle class and working class. Attempts to take some of the unfairness out of the system to the benefit of all taxpayers has been twisted by the Karl Rovian tactics of the Conservative Party and their eager media mouth pieces to appear as though they are befitting themselves . It is surprising and disappointing to see Paul Wells play along with this.,

    This is similar to the Tea Party in the US which purported to be the voice of everyman but was set up and funded by the billionaire Koch brothers and promoted by Rupert Murdoch and Fox News with the aim of getting pressure for a government that would slash taxes for the wealthy and benefits for the not so wealthy.

    Moves to make the tax system fairer are twisted to look like an attack on the very people they are designed to help and personal attacks are launched on the minister and the PM (mind you attacks on the PM calling for him to be hung as a traitor are old news on Conservative message broads and blogs.).

    Nowadays the Canadian press pretty well just act as megaphones for Conservative talking points and gotcha nonsense as in this article..

    One thing for sure, the trolls and bots that attached themselves to Trump and attacked Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama are in full cry against Trudeau and this is the exact sort of article that attracts them by the boatload, so Wells and any reporter can guarantee themselves lots and lots of clicks simply by churning out dreck like this.

    • “Service to the uber wealthy” is an odd thing to fixate on for a defender of Trudeau, who seems to hang around with so many of them.

      As for income inequality… the Gini coefficient here has been flat for 20 years, but Canadian pols have made huge amounts of hay by importing US income inequality statistics. Sorry you’ve been fooled.

      • Service to the uber wealthy is exactly right. From all his years as lobbyist at the national citizens coalition and for his years in government.
        Much hypocritical hay was made of Trudeau vacation with the Aga Khan, a philanthropist, but no one commented on Rona Ambrose and her free vacation on the yacht of a Canadian oil billionaire now living in England to avoid Canadian taxes. That was only to be expected and not worth mentioning evidently even though her vacation was not pre cleared with the ethics commissioner either and only came up when she was emailing attacks on Trudeau from the yacht.

        When Harper was in power the CRA dropped the ball on foreign tax haven while targeting environmental groups. His boutique tax credits befitted those with more money than those without.

        Much was made of Harpers modest Wetjet fight to Las Vegas-but turned out he was there to attend meetings at the home of Sheldon Adelson a multi billionaire gambling czar and all round shady figure accused of being close to the Chinese underworld and source of Dark money in American and Israeli politics.

        Trudeau knows people with money and without – Harper has been very close with big money much of it from south of the border and in the energy business, but strives to keep it hidden.

        • Nice try Kelper.

          Ambrose was completely cleared. “The ethics commissioner said Ambrose didn’t break any rules and didn’t need to disclose any details of her holiday.” Jan 2017.

          However your man JT is still under investigation. The investigation is costing tax payers tens of thousand of $$$.

          Where to start on the Adelsons. Hmmmm. Aside from giving hundreds of millions of $$$ away to all sorts of causes. There is the drug addiction clinic in Las Vegas that Dr. Adelson still runs herself. And guess what — no matter your political stripe. She will assist you with your addition.
          Should we mention that Wilson Woodrow award that the Adelsons received? Woodrow as you know was a Democrat

          • You don’t seem to have any idea who Sheldon Adelson is. First of all, he is not a she and not some kindly doctor but rather a billionaire casino owner who has been accused of being tight with Chinese underworld figures through involvement in his Macao casinos among other things..

            Adelson is also named among the sources of “dark money” that has influenced politics in the U S and has interfered for years in Israeli politics where he is Netanyahs chief funder which has become an issue in Israel. In fact recently Netanyahu was compelled by the Supreme court to divulge the numerous calls with Adelson.

            ..It is to his place in Las Vegas that Harper went, not to some doctors house.

            Regarding the Aga Khan, there is an investigation because the CPC requested it and the main question seems to be regarding ferrying to the island by helicopter Presumably if he had gone by yacht like Ambrose that would have been fine.

            And Ambrose did not pre clear her vacation and only advised the commissioner when she was half way through and had launched her hilariously hypocritical attack on Trudeau from an oil billionaires yacht.

        • That Canadian oil billionaire you speak of is a noted Liberal Party supporter. Which is why when his mine tailings pond burst in BC (and relatively speaking very little fuss made about it) or when there is a oil leak at one of his facilities in Alberta or when his hockey team is shaking down Naheed Nenshi for a new arena, his name is never mentioned in the mainstream media.

        • Dr. Adelson is HIS WIFE!!!

          How many BILLIONAIRE Adelson’s do you think are out there?

    • Kelper-Trudeau’s net worth is published at $12 million. Harper is published at $7 million. So your first line is nonsense.
      Trudeau’s tax policy increases are all aimed at those who pay the bulk of income taxes today. The top 1% of income earners in Canada pay 10% 0f all income taxes collected. The top 10% pay 54% of all income tax collected in Canada. If you don’t think that’s a fair share, you’re smoking something!

      • Who is this mysterious Kelper Trudeau you are referring to?

        Justin Trudeas family inheritance was 1.2 million and most reports of his net worth are 2-3 million. Harpers was about 5 million in 2015 so not sure what it is now but he is certainly hanging with some very wealthy people and as he took very good care of their interests while in power I am sure we won’t have to worry about his financial future.

        • $12 million, not $1.2 million. You don’t get to put decimal places wherever they’re convenient for you.

    • I would love to see your proof that Harper is twice as rich as wee Justin? We don’t even know how much Justin is worth because that is not revealed – we know he sheltered his inheritance in a trust but that is about all. We do know that Harper doesn’t take expensive vacations paid for by his rich friends (or at least we have never seen him do so and given the Harper haters that still exist, I’m sure those pictures would have been printed widely if they existed).

      So where is your proof?

  9. Go get’em Paul. I think many of us are very very sick of Liberal hypocrisy.

    • Geez, Wells. We among the great unwashed out in the hinterlands were telling you guys this was exactly what was going to happen, back when you were cheerleading this Marxist-bred idiot.
      Welcome to the party, pal.

      • Yes it seems Wells has planted his flag and is now part of your happy gang.

        Happily you will have his musings to look forward to along with Margret Wente and Rex Murphy.,

        • Susan Delacourt is now enthusiastically recommending this article by Paul Wells.
          On CBC radio this morning she called the Trudeau Government disfunctional. I guess that is now the agreed upon description in the Ottawa media.
          This article certainly shows the Ottawa media has now coalesced around a uniform view of the Trudeau government. Not much light between Wells, Delacourt, Hebert, Ivison, Coyne, and of course, the glorious leader from the start, Rex.

          • You’re right. Even Trudeau’s fellow progressives like Delacoirt are turning on him. It took the media 13 years to turn on the old Liberals. The new Liberals got 18 months. That’s bad news for your hero.

  10. I can see the tag line for Conservative election ads now. “They are not like you, not even close.” Followed by a picture of Trudeau or Morneau and a shot of the Aga Khans island paradise or Morneaus French villa. Gotta love it, can hardly wait for the fireworks show.

    • Yes, and isn’t it marvellous that john Ivison in the National Post and now Wells are doing yeoman service to help them out with their attack ads. Honestly, I understand your joy at the discomfiting of your political enemy but I don’t think this is what the press is for.

      • This is exactly what the press is for. Trudeau and Morneau – both trust fund babies who never spent a day in their lives in the middle class, nor even seem to understand what the middle class is – have been misrepresenting themselves from the get go. The press is finally calling their bluff. Better late than never.

        • If Trudeau and Morneau were members of a Conservative cabinet, and were attacked by Liberals, NDP, and media the way they are attacked by Poilievre and Wells etc the attackers would be accused or fomenting class warfare.
          But it’s Trudeau under attack, so it’s OK.

          • Trudeau has had a soft ride with the media for way too long. His and his party’s ongoing screw ups have become far too large to continue to sweep under the rug. I applaud Mr. Wells for puuting his broom away.

          • Of course, the media never criticized Conservative ministers. You were either asleep for a decade or you’re just too damned young to remember even 3 years ago. Either one disqualifies you from having an informed opinion on the subject.

    • Justin Trudeau “is” Daisy Buchanan.

      The Conservative campaign can run ads with quotes from The Great Gatsby.

  11. Wells and his mainstream media buddies are coming around from just repeating and reinforcing the PMO narratives about how great Justin and his gang are because they have have to protect what credibility they have left amongst the people who still believe the mainstream media. When regular ordinary people are showing up at town halls condemning government policy, even the mainstream media eventually is forced to admit it (regardless of the wrath they might feel from Trudeau’s PMO).

    This is accentuated by the fact that Melanie Joly has declined to give the media any more state subsidies. The Trudeau Liberals have decided to throw themselves in with the Netflix-Google-Facebook media train.


  12. Mr. Wells As a topic for your next article here is a suggestion:

    Exactly how rich is Mr. Morneau? Is there a pre-nuptial agreement on his marriage to Nancy McCain? Nancy is a heir to the McCain privately held empire. The estimated value of her close relatives is upwards of 5 Billion.

    Mr. Morneau’s motivation for becoming a politician? Pretty hard to motivate yourself to expand and manage Morneau Shepell Market capitialization of 1.12B) when that accounts for such a minor portion of your wealth.

    Is Mr. Morneau the richest politician in Canadian history? Paul Martin’s net worth was a mere 225 million.

    President Trump does not take a salary. He is in the Morneau/McCain level of wealth.

    Nigel Wright as Harpers Chief of Staff declined to file any expenses for meals, flights or hotels. He believed he shouldn’t charge taxpayers for expenses if he could afford to cover them himself.

    Is Mr Morneau paying for the Budget cover out of his own pocket?

    • Well we all look up to and admire Nigel Wright that’s for sure.
      Unlike Morneau he could do no wrong during his years in Ottawa.

    • Beside the point. Morneau is finished at Finance, and maybe as an MP altogether. He’ll be shuffled out shortly. Say hello to Finance Minister Navdeep Bains.

      • And the next budget title will be “From superclusters to supertaxes…”! -)

  13. Spot on.
    I’d rather be robbed by a thug with a gun – they have the virtue of being up-front. Trudeau and Morneau are entitled lizards – and their contribution to the ‘fairness tax’? – Zilch. Hang ’em high.