OTTAWA — When it comes to finance ministers, Canada’s new budget czar is no small potatoes.
A millionaire many times over, Bill Morneau — until now a hugely successful businessman and adviser to people in high places — is, by all accounts, a very smart guy, who is also married to Nancy McCain. That’s right, a family member of the spud monarchy of New Brunswick.
Lifted from the private sector by newly installed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to the second-highest political rank in the federal government, the 53-year-old Morneau joins a group of well-educated and usually richly rewarded Canadians who, in the past, also received cabinet appointments.
But wealth that predates entry into politics has proven to not necessarily be a bad thing. In fact, many successful politicians were pretty well off before they ever entered the federal fray of Ottawa. And not many got richer while being there.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau could be applauded for looking past what was bound to be signs of smugness from critics who equate business success as a transition to political opportunism.
By naming Morneau to the No. 2 cabinet post on Wednesday, though, Trudeau is betting on a political payoff in bringing a long-time Bay Streeter — someone who already knows how to read a balance sheet — into public office to help direct the economy out of stagnation.
“In terms of (Morneau’s) general business and economic literacy, that’s high. So, for an incoming finance minister, that’s great,” said William Robson, president at C.D. Howe Institute, who has worked with Morneau for more than a dozen years. “I know him as a friend as well.
“There’s a lot in the briefing book that the (Finance) Department would have prepared for him. But they’re going to be able to flip through those pages relatively quickly.”
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Before his transition to politics, Morneau was executive chair of human resources giant Morneau Shepell and, previously, chair of the C.D. Howe Institute. According to Bloomberg News, Morneau maintains a 4.7 per cent stake in the company that bears his name, a holding valued at more than $30 million.
A first-time member of Parliament, he was elected to the riding of Toronto Centre in the Oct. 19 federal vote. He has master’s degrees in economics and business administration — having attended the London School of Economics and the University of Western Ontario. His wife, Nancy, comes from the family behind the globally successful McCain Foods, the potato produce company begun in Florenceville, N.B., in 1957 and still privately owned.
The new prime minister is not hurting much for money either. Justin Trudeau inherited a good sum from his father, Pierre, who in turn had benefited from family’s wealth generated through gas stations and real estate holdings. Paul Martin, the previous Liberal prime minister — and finance minister before that — was also a multi-millionaire.
There were also Conservatives who did well before entering politics, such as Brian Mulroney, a lawyer and businessman who later led the Tories as prime minister. The family of another Tory leader, Robert Stanfield, operated the large textile company that still bears the family name.
As for Morneau, “it’s nice to see someone being rewarded for the personal sacrifice of walking away from a leadership job in the private sector to help his country,” said Avery Shenfeld, chief economist at CIBC World Markets.
“He’s a solid pick with a very successful background in the financial system that will serve him well.”
Robson, at the C.D. Howe Institute, agreed that Morneau “went into public life for the right reasons.”
“There are sometimes MPs where you look at them and say this is the best job this person has ever had. My hat’s off for those people who make that sacrifice,” he said. “(But) as for being well to do, and being well-known in the business community is concerned, there is potentially some downside to that in terms of personal attacks.”
For his part, Morneau told CBC TV on Wednesday said that he has resigned as the chair of Morneau Shepell and “I suspect all my assets will go into a blind trust.”
“I’ve already communicated with the Ethics Commissioner in that regard.”