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Cabinet shuffle imminent as PM moves to replace Morneau in crucial finance post

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is expected to name a new finance minister as early as today following the abrupt departure Monday of Bill Morneau.

Trudeau can’t let the crucial post go vacant for long when the country is mired in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and running up unprecedented deficits — both of which could deepen this fall if Canada is hit with a second wave of the novel coronavirus.

At a hastily announced news conference Monday evening, Morneau announced that he’s quitting both as finance minister and as the Liberal MP for Toronto Centre.

That opens up a safe Liberal seat for Mark Carney, the former governor of both the Bank of Canada and the Bank of England, should he choose to jump into the political arena — a leap he’s long been rumoured to be interested in making, with an eye to eventually running for Liberal leader.

News last week that Trudeau has tapped Carney for informal advice on a post-pandemic recovery plan triggered fevered speculation that the prime minister was about to replace Morneau, with whom he reportedly had disagreements over policy.

It wouldn’t be the first time a prime minister has named someone to cabinet who didn’t hold a seat in the House of Commons. Stephane Dion and Pierre Pettigrew entered Jean Chretien’s cabinet in 1996 and won byelections a couple of months later. Louis St. Laurent was named to William Lyon Mackenzie King’s cabinet in 1941, before winning a byelection.

Speculation has now shifted to some of Trudeau’s tried-and-true ministers to fill Morneau’s shoes. First among them: Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, a former journalist who has written extensively about the global economy, including the best-selling book “Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else.”

Freeland would be the first female finance minister in Canada’s history.

Other names circulating in the Parliament Hill rumour mill include Treasury Board president Jean-Yves Duclos, a distinguished economist before entering politics in 2015, Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough, Justice Minister David Lametti and Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne.

Whomever he chooses, Trudeau is expected to involve a minimal number of ministers in the shuffle necessitated by Morneau’s exit.

Morneau insisted his decision was based strictly on the fact that he doesn’t intend to run for re-election and his belief that the finance minister must be someone who will be around for the long, hard road to recovery ahead. He said he intends to run to be the next secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development instead.

His explanation was plausible insofar as Trudeau needs a finance minister who can play a lead role in the next election campaign. That could come at any time, since the Liberals hold only a minority of Commons seats and it will inevitably revolve around plans for economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

But it’s unlikely to silence speculation that he was pushed out over disagreements with Trudeau and the ongoing controversy over the government’s choice of WE Charity to administer a student grant program.

Both Trudeau and Morneau have close family ties to the charity and have apologized for not recusing themselves from the decision. And both are under investigation by the federal ethics watchdog for possible breaches of conflict of interest rules.

Morneau compounded the controversy by revealing that WE Charity had paid over $41,000 in expenses for family trips to see its humanitarian projects in Ecuador and Kenya. Morneau repaid the charity just hours before disclosing the trips during testimony before the Commons finance committee last month.

Further damaging revelations could be coming when the committee finally releases thousands of pages of documents the government turned over 10 days ago about the WE affair. The documents are currently being vetted by Parliament’s law clerk to ensure there are no breaches of cabinet confidentiality or personal privacy.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 18, 2020.

Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press

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