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Trudeau, finance minister clash over green plans, soaring deficit

  • Published at 10:59 am August 17th, 2020
Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
File photo: Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attends a news conference at Rideau Cottage, as efforts continue to slow the spread of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19), in Ottawa, on April 24, 2020 Reuters

 Trudeau and Morneau had clashed over the amount of money Ottawa is spending to combat the coronavirus

A deepening rift between Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his finance minister about coronavirus spending is also fuelled by disagreements over the scope and scale of proposed green initiatives, three sources familiar with the matter said.

Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau are scheduled to meet on Monday in a bid to sort out their differences, said a fourth source aware of the meeting. The sources requested anonymity given the sensitivity of the situation.

Morneau and his team have pushed back against other Cabinet ministers about how much funding was needed, including to what extent the recovery could be helped by investing in environmental projects, the people added.

Trudeau, who campaigned on a platform to tackle climate change, believes the 2021 budget should have an ambitious environmental element to start weaning the heavily oil-dependent economy off fossil fuels and he recently hired former Bank of England Governor Mark Carney as an informal adviser, aides say.

The appointment, coupled with a Globe and Mail report that Trudeau and Morneau had clashed over the amount of money Ottawa is spending to combat the coronavirus, led to speculation about the future of the finance minister. Morneau, 57, has been in the job since the Liberals took power in late 2015.

Asked for a reaction, Trudeau spokesman Cameron Ahmad noted that the prime minister issued a statement on Tuesday saying he had "full confidence" in Morneau, who confidants say is alarmed by ballooning budget deficits.

An official working for Morneau said the finance minister was in constant touch with the Trudeau team on policy files.

"There are always discussions, but that's typical," said the official, adding that Morneau had been clear "that we would need to invest for recovery."

Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson along with Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna, a former environment minister, have met with top civil servants to discuss options that could involve billions of dollars in extra spending, said one of the three sources. Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault also attended the meetings.

Morneau's resistance to expensive environmental initiatives reflects his roots in Bay Street, Toronto's financial centre, and a view held among right-leaning Liberals that deficits are out of control.

'Need to get a grip'

Possible budget measures range from investments to help provinces reduce their carbon footprints, boosting research into clean technology and encouraging the construction of efficient buildings.

Canada's budget deficit is forecast to hit $253.4 billion, the largest shortfall since World War Two, this fiscal year. Total coronavirus support is nearly 14% of gross domestic product.

"He was not very keen on a huge deficit; that's not what he wanted as his legacy," said a sixth source familiar with Morneau's thinking.

Problems between a finance minister and colleagues with ambitious proposals are not unusual. "Every single department in government that spends money ends up butting heads with Finance," said the fifth source.

But Morneau is feeling increasingly isolated at the Cabinet table, with no close allies, according to the source.

Adding to Morneau's challenges, several Cabinet members were upset when he disclosed, he had forgotten to repay travel expenses covered for him by a charity at the heart of an ethics probe, one of the three sources said. Morneau and Trudeau are facing ethics inquiries related to the charity.

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