Q&A: Bill Morneau, new finance minister and the face of Canada’s deficit deep-dive

Q&A: Bill Morneau, new finance minister and the face of Canada’s deficit deep-dive

Bill Morneau went from obscure Bay Street businessman to monetary chief. What it’s like to lead the biggest financial gamble in recent memory

Bill Morneau
(Image: Nathan Cyprys)

Where were you when Justin Trudeau asked you to be his finance minister?
In his Ottawa transition office with him and his key advisors.

Did you respond with “Can I think about it?” so as not to seem overeager?
No! I didn’t hesitate for a nanosecond. Then I went to my hotel room and sat alone for about half an hour, looking out over Ottawa, and pondering the privilege and enormity of the job. Then I called my wife, Nancy.

How did you two celebrate?
We had dinner at Scaramouche a few days later. I believe I ordered fish.

Until recently, you were the executive chair of the human resources consultancy Morneau Shepell. What makes you qualified to be finance minister?
I have experience in pensions, taxation, growth and innovation. I did my master’s at the London School of Economics and an MBA at INSEAD.

And now you’re on the Mount Everest of learning curves. What are the three most daunting challenges you’re currently facing? Ranked, if you please.
First, getting up to speed on the subject matter. Second, the volume—I now have four phones and five iPads—and third, adjusting to a new office and team.

You were part of the group behind the plan to put Canada into modest deficit. Does that mean you’re also the guy to blame if we never come out of it?
I’m one of the people who came up with the plan to invest in Canada, which will lead to productivity, jobs and growth, and get the budget back into balance.

How far into deficit are you willing to go each year? $10 billion? $20?
The key figure I’m focused on is government debt as percentage of GDP. Right now it’s at 31 per cent. Our intention is to lower that throughout our term. To what number exactly? It’s too early to say.

And on what projects will you target spending?
Social infrastructure, like affordable housing and housing for seniors; green technology; and transit.

Can John Tory’s SmartTrack plan work? No one seems sure.
I’ll leave that to John. When he comes for funding we’ll do our best to understand the plan. I’m not in a position to have a point of view yet.

Trudeau plans to raise the top income tax rate to 33 per cent, which puts you, with $1 million in earnings last year and $32 million in stocks, in the awkward position of advocating for higher taxes on yourself. Why is that the right thing to do?
The way to help the middle class is by raising taxes on the wealthiest. Its impact on me is beside the point.

Have any of your friends asked you to cool it?
A number of my friends in the top one per cent tell me they understand why we’ve made this tax policy. I’ve had others who have said the exact opposite. I expect that will continue to be the case.

By all accounts, you’re a very straight-laced guy. So what are your vices?
I love to share a great bottle of wine with my friends. Other than that, I’m pretty much a vice-free zone.

Your wife is arts advocate and philanthropist Nancy McCain, of the famous french fry family. How did you meet?
On a blind date at a restaurant called Frontenac in Soho in New York. We closed the place. I remember looking out the back window of the taxi thinking this might be permanent.

How long did you wait to call her?
The next morning—about 12 hours later! Is that too quick?

Normally, I’d say yes, but you got married, so I guess not! At home you’ve got four teenagers, including one you sponsored from Uganda. What was that process like?
It’s gone spectacularly well. Grace is resourceful and resilient. The process made me understand how challenging it is for people to come to a new country, but also how it’s possible for people to succeed if we help them.

Trudeau plans to legalize pot. Have you had that talk with the kids?
Of course. I tell them that drinking to excess is not good; getting high is not good. I encourage them to think about what they want to do with their lives and recognize that drinking and marijuana are counterproductive to those goals.

So why legalize it?
I don’t want kids buying it from criminals, which is how the current system works.