Bill Morneau would have left Gilligan speechless

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Hey everybody.  Let’s hear it for Twitter.  (Chorus of unprintable abuse follows.)  But I mean it.  For all its failings it does allow us to share information including an appalling exchange yesterday between Pierre Poilievre and somebody claiming to be the Canadian finance minister while doing his best to demonstrate that if true it should not be.

Too often during his career Poilievre has laboured to give juvenile partisanship a bad name.  But here he showed welcome signs of turning his polemical talents to more mature purpose, condensing a complex issue to a few very salient easily comprehensible points.  Whereas the finance minister…

Frankly, the exchange has to be seen to be disbelieved.  By the way, being myself pedantic as well as polemical, I try to source references and as far as I can tell the origin of this marvellous putdown was New York Daily News columnist David Bianculli on Bob Denver playing Gilligan playing Hamlet.  So yes, there are things stranger than politics.  But not many.  And this performance by Morneau would have left Gilligan speechless.

The basic point Poilievre was trying to make in a meeting of the Special Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic is that the federal government is piling up dangerous amounts of debt in trying to save us from the economic consequences of shutting down the economy by conjuring money out of thin air.  Which is true.

It is true whether or not you believe the quarantine was justified originally, or what you argue we should do now.  It is true whether or not you believe the accumulation of debt is a risk worth taking.  Because we are attempting to balance dangers here and minimize overall harm.  Or so you’d like to think.

So you’d especially like to think given that Morneau is often cast as the fiscally responsible adult given the Prime Minister’s manifest unfitness for the part.  It is Morneau who ought to be assuring us that yes, the government understands the perils, and is thinking about the long run, paying attention to what’s happening and making responsible decisions.

For that reason, in posing these questions Poilievre was not merely doing his own job.  He was assisting the finance minister in doing his, or trying to.  He was giving Morneau a chance to speak soberly and factually about the situation and how it might unfold.

Instead Morneau took juvenile pleasure in refusing to acknowledge Poilievre’s questions and the legitimate concerns behind them.  With undergraduate insouciance he recited stale, empty talking points about investing in Canadians.  And as Poilievre’s questions became ever more terse and to the point, the finance minster became ever more childishly irrelevant.  It’s as though he had a Trudeau transplant, right down to the smirk.

He thought it was a game.  He thought since everyone he knows regards Poilievre as an immature buffoon, it was appropriate satire to act like one himself.  Here’s the link to Poilievre’s tweet of the exchange.  But let me quote a bit.

Poilievre: What is the equity on the government of Canada’s balance sheet?

Morneau: Mr. Speaker, I would advise the member of Carleton to memorize those Auditor General figures for his next foray into the House of Commons. (Laughter)

Poilievre: The Minister has claimed that our balance sheet is strong.  There are three components to a balance sheet: the assets, the liabilities and the equity.  And the minister doesn’t know any of the three.  So clearly he doesn’t actually know anything about our balance sheet.  That’s reassuring.  Now according to the Auditor General, the net negative net worth of the Government of Canada will be as much as a trillion dollars by the end of this fiscal year.  Can the minister, if he’s familiar with any of these numbers, tell us is it possible his government will hit a trillion dollars debt this year?

As you can see, it would have been a crushing comeback including in partisan terms for Morneau to recite the numbers.  Instead he bloviated like a third-rate hack trapped in the maze of his own ignorance.

Morneau: Mr. Speaker, I want to assure Canadians that our approach will be to continue to make investments on their behalf and that is available to us because of our strong fiscal position.  But we will continue to take that approach which we think is the appropriate approach.

So Poilievre drilled in with the sort of intensity that gives partisanship a good name, calling those in power to account for their fatuities.

Poilievre: A trillion dollars, yes or no?

Morneau: Mr. Speaker, as I said, we will continue to focus on the importance of supporting Canadians.

Poilievre: What is the size of our current national debt?

Morneau: Mr. Speaker, I think that what will happen as we do that is we will allow ourselves to have a stronger economy at the end because of these investments.

Poilievre: The size of the national debt?

Morneau: And we have always seen, Mr. Speaker that these investments, they’re not only supporting Canadians, they’re supporting businesses so we that do have a strong economy and a strong fiscal position coming out of this.

Poilievre: Does the finance minister know the size of our national debt?

Morneau: Mr. Speaker, I will continue to focus our efforts, as we believe we should focus them, on supporting Canadians through this time.

Poilievre: Does the finance minister know what a trillion dollars is?

Morneau: We are continuing to make investments that we believe are prudent in the face of this economic challenge, supporting Canadians as we know we need to.

As you can see, Poilievre did have at least some of the numbers at his fingertips.  But Morneau could have swatted away this gadfly at any point simply by citing a few himself.  Yet apparently he could not remember any of it, or did not see that it mattered to demonstrate that he could.  Even as a sophomoric debater, he failed badly.

As finance minister during a crisis, he failed far worse.  The economic and fiscal situation really is alarming.  And Morneau showed no sign of realizing it, let alone of needing to demonstrate that he realized it.  Instead he gave the bizarre impression of resuming reciting a singularly stale stump speech each time Poilievre posed an increasingly terse, exasperated and pointed question.

Does the Prime Minister know the size of the national debt?  I’d wager my portion he does not.  But Bill Morneau is an experienced businessman with extensive public policy experience.  Or so we’re meant to think.

In this exchange, he went as far as possible out of his way to demonstrate that he was not.  Or at any rate that if he once was, he has since forgotten everything he knew, learned nothing useful, and become a horrifyingly irresponsible and childish partisan hack at the precise moment that Canada needs a statesman at the helm and shows no sign of having one.

You know it’s bad when you’re grateful for Twitter because it exposes immature folly instead of incarnating it.  It’s really bad.  And we’re there.

Especially now.

More from John Robson.    Follow John on Twitter at @thejohnrobson

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