BUSINESS WATCH

The power of big business

Peter C. Newman May 14 1984
BUSINESS WATCH

The power of big business

Peter C. Newman May 14 1984

The power of big business

BUSINESS WATCH

Peter C. Newman

Canada’s business community,

which has traditionally shied away from political involvement outside of backroom fund-raising, is about to launch a powerful bid to influence the results of the next federal election.

The opening salvo was a recent speech to the Board of Trade Club in Toronto by Tom d’Aquino, president of the Business Council on National Issues (BCNI). “By acting in a collective fashion,” he declared, “we can go a long way toward influencing issues.” Nothing unusual about that, except that d’Aquino then went on to spell out precisely what he wants—and what the BCNI wants, it usually gets. The group is a blue-ribbon collage of Canada’s 150 most prominent chief executive officers, who represent $580 billion in assets. The BCNl’s influence extends far beyond its $l-million annual budget because the corporate honchos who form its membership seldom fall back on surrogate views or involvement. The council first demonstrated its clout by persuading the Trudeau government to maintain its Six-and-Five wage restraints as a voluntary, instead of a mandatory, program. D’Aquino, who was born in Trail, B.C., holds three degrees and spent nearly four years as special assistant to Prime Minister Trudeau, has become a pivotal figure among Ottawa decision-makers. The receptions he and his wife, Susan, host (she works in the Privy Council Office) at their showplace home cantilevered over McKay Lake in Rockcliffe Park are among the capital’s most impressive power gatherings.

What d’Aquino has set out as the business community’s minimum demands from the next Prime Minister goes beyond the generalities most business associations have floated in preparation for previous election campaigns. “We are two million strong,” he announced. “Whether we hail from big business or small, incorporated bodies or single proprietorships ... we are bound together by certain shared values. ”

What the BCNl’s membership is demanding from the next Prime Minister is a massive cut in our massive deficit. “Canadians who argue that deficits don’t matter,” d’Aquino says, “are living in a dream world and are the real enemies of the unemployed.” Defining precisely which sectors of government

spending should be cut is the current assignment of a BCNI task force headed by Union Gas president Darcy McKeough. Among d’Aquino’s fiscal targets are reducing inflation to two per cent per year and, not surprisingly, further weakening the Foreign Investment Review Agency, though that benighted funnel now has little left except its initials. D’Aquino strongly condemns the

trend toward mixed private and public enterprise, which increasingly characterizes Canada’s economy. “We are largely to blame,” he admits, sounding like a born-again capitalist, “because so many of these moves by governments have been legitimized with our tacit consent. Let’s be more wary of the dangers of public sector imperialism.”

D’Aquino wants his two million followers to vote for politicians who “believe in limited government” and urges the defeat of those with “statist ambitions,” whoever they may be.

This is fairly tame stuff, except that d’Aquino really means it. His executive

committee contains such luminaries of the boardroom as Rowland Frazee, chairman of the Royal Bank; Jean de Grandpré, who as chairman of Bell Canada Enterprises now controls the country’s largest corporate capital pool; Peter Gordon, chairman of Stelco; and Gordon Fisher, president of Southam Inc.

It’s easy to guess that the BCNl’s task force will recommend a retreat from social welfare “universality.” Paying family benefits only to those who need them would reduce federal spending by $3 billion overnight. D’Aquino also wants to reform Parliament so that deputy ministers are directly accountable to its committees for the administration of their departments, and by having an elected Senate.

Two areas of immediate concern that demonstrated the BCNl’s clout have been d’Aquino’s inclusion as cochairman of Ottawa’s newly established Canadian Labor Market and Productivity Centre and its influence on the current revisions of the competition bill currently slithering through Parliament’s legislative mills. A BCNI task force, chaired by William F. McLean (a director at Canada Packers), worked closely with consumer and corporate affairs officials to break the impasse that kept big business and the ministers who preceded July Eróla at loggerheads during the past 15 years. The new amendments don’t go very far, but at least they’ll change antimonopolies legislation, which has earned its reputation as the most ineffectual in the free world. There are still no provisions for class action suits, and conspiracies remain difficult to prove, but the banks are included in the revisions for the first time (as are Crown corporations), and by moving prosecutions from criminal to civil courts, convictions should be easier to obtain. This may well be the only antimonopoly legislation in the history of capitalism that has been blessed in advance by the very people it is designed to police.

But the fact that the competition bill really does have more teeth than before signals d’Aquino’s success in persuading the members of his council that to be effective in public policy consultations businessmen must move beyond their blinkered bottom-line ethic. And that, in turn, could mean that the next Prime Minister of Canada will move into office with the priorities of big business firmly counted among his commitments.