If government really wants business as a friend, it could start by showing a little respect

Peter Brimelow December 13 1976

If government really wants business as a friend, it could start by showing a little respect

Peter Brimelow December 13 1976

If government really wants business as a friend, it could start by showing a little respect

Peter Brimelow

Viewed from outside, Ottawa appears to be not so much a place as a disease. Or else one of those ominously quiet New England towns beloved of Gothic novels, where even the hero is apt to discover one morning while shaving that he is slowly turning into a vampire. Sooner or later, everyone there is claimed by the attitudes, preoccupations and even the style of the civil service and its political cohabitants. Since the business community has its own peculiar style, it is hardly surprising that the two groups don’t get along too well. The Task Force on Business/Government Interface was set up to do something about this, in keeping with the “formal process of | discussion, dialogue and consultation with « all elements of Canadian society” sono9, rously promised in the government’s postcontrols working paper, The Way Ahead. Having discussed, dialogued etc., the task force has now produced its report, copies of which have been wafting around like autumn leaves, waiting for the French translation to be finished. It’s a remarkably clever document, a product of Ottawa at its finest. But its ultimate effect is depressing, because no amount of ingenuity can solve the problem it lays bare.

The report is elegantly written by task force chairman Roy Macharen, who is also the author of a recently published study of Canada’s role in the allied intervention against the Bolshevik revolution, Canadians In Russia, 1918-1919 (Macmillan). His personal interfacing includes stints with External Affairs, Massey-Ferguson Ftd., and Ogilvy & Mather (Canada) Ltd., the U.S.-linked advertising agency. Employing a favorite tactic of bureaucrats and politicians, the report disarms opposition in advance by judiciously discussing every possible hindrance to the perfect union of business and government in Canada, from the conflicting interests of many industries to the fact that executives in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal just don’t run into civil servants socially, seeing them only when on special pilgrimages to Ottawa. Then it proceeds to make specific recommendations on how to “manage” the relationship between the two sectors which reflect a rather more limited perspective. Chief among these is the formation of a Canada Business Relations Council as a key liaison point, a strengthening of the various business associations, increased interchange of personnel between the two sides and “reprivatization,” the adoption of free market solutions to various needs currently met by government intervention.

These are manifestly intelligent sugges-

tions. But it’s hard to be optimistic about their implementation. Even apart from the obvious paradox of soothing business’ fear of bureaucracy by setting up yet another committee (albeit with only a “small staff’), such an abstract talkfest as the proposed Business Relations Council is not easily compatible with the incredibly mole-like existence of many chief executives, grubbing for long hours among their papers and rarely leaving their immediate circle even for lunch. Although “reprivatization” has apparently been discussed in cabinet in respect to opening up Air Canada’s routes to competitive tender—without result—the report is discreetly silent on where specifically this principle can be applied. The reaction of the labor unions if the government attempted the classic example of turning the mails over to private enterprise can readily be imagined. And isn’t it possible that there are good as well as bad reasons for the dichotomy in attitudes, because of the differences in the two functions?

Actually, there are two problems involved in government-business relations. First, there is the coordination of information flows between the two on technical matters such as regulations, advice on foreign markets and so on. This probably could be improved by more liaison. But the second question, that of overall morale, is virtually intractable. For, in the end, the reason business believes it’s being nailed to the wall is that the government is nailing it to the wall. It is government policy to alter by political will the distribution of wealth, patterns of investment, and a whole range of social phenomena. No amount of consultation can hide this coercion. All that can be debated is its degree. Since the present government believes it should be substantial, business disquiet is

inevitable: but even if there really was room for argument, to stage it anywhere other than on the floor of the House of Commons means a significant constitutional shift—one that the report hints is essential.

The philosophy behind the task force report is fundamentally one of political intervention, although of undefined dimensions. This explains why, despite the difficulties that it acknowledges itself, the report persists in the belief that business can and must organize itself into associations, which would make things much simpler for Ottawa. It explains why civil servants discussing the issue suggest a government agency to direct businessmen to the officials relevant to their particular problem, although this function is already filled by private entrepreneurs. They’re called lobbyists. But they’re poorly regarded by current opinion, which would prefer that corporate executives communicate with government by standing outside Ottawa office blocks and shouting through a bullhorn.

Canada has now reached the point where government intervention in the economy cannot proceed further without serious disorientation of the business com -munity, but where the attempt to integrate it (and the labor unions) into the process devalues parliament and introduces the beginnings of a corporate state—cosmetic “reprivatization” notwithstanding. The only alternative to the inefficiencies and loss of freedom this entails is to halt and reverse the growth of the whole paternalistic and ultimately unstable apparatus of the welfare state, just as the structure of feudalism was dismantled at the start of the industrial revolution. Of this radical return to individualism there is, needless to say, no sign whatever.