PROFILE

Taking over the hot seat

Onetime radical becomes director of competition policy

IAN ANDERSON October 26 1981
PROFILE

Taking over the hot seat

Onetime radical becomes director of competition policy

IAN ANDERSON October 26 1981

Taking over the hot seat

PROFILE

Onetime radical becomes director of competition policy

New Brunswickers have a way of keeping an eye on fellow New Brunswickers who seem destined to go places. So when Lawson Hunter of Florenceville arrived in Ottawa with his Harvard law school degree, Gordon Fairweather of Rothesay was quick to offer him some advice. “Get into a department that’s on the move,” the veteran MP, now Canada’s commissioner of human rights, told his former summer student. “Attach yourself to someone who’s going places.” Fairweather had sized up the energetic young man and determined he would do the home province proud —maybe going so far as a seat on the Supreme Court of Canada, he says now. But in Lawson Hunter’s case, the advice may have been superfluous. Seldom has Ottawa seen career acceleration such as that which carried the onetime campus radical from the obscurity of the bureaucracy to the nation’s youngest director of competition. At age 36, the short, rumpled Maritimer with the Swiss watch mind has become Ottawa’s top corporate cop, policing the most powerful companies in the country. The Bureau of Competition Policy is handling some of its largest cases ever—an investigation into collusion between the Thomson and Southam newspaper chains, and inquiries into price-fixing by both the uranium and petroleum industries. And Hunter will face the task of spearheading longawaited and controversial changes to competition legislation, expected to be introduced in Parliament this fall.

As if that were not daunting enough, Hunter takes over the hot seat vacated by Robert Bertrand, the firebrand who was bumped out of the bureau in May by Michael Pitfield, clerk of the Privy Council. Just a month earlier, Bertrand had accused the oil companies of bilking Canadian consumers out of $12.1 billion between 1958 and 1973. And it was Bertrand who had broken the mould for civil servants by publicly campaigning for new competition laws to replace the Combines Investigation Act, a piece of legislation so vague Bertrand was virtually powerless to stop any merger or monopoly, or even cases of price-fixing.

A stubborn man with scant concern for bureaucratic politics, Bertrand had not endeared himself to either the business community or other levels of government. Yet he was courageous and idealistic, often rushing in where his various ministers—from André Ouellet to Warren Allmand then back to André Ouellet—had feared to tread. While recognizing Bertrand’s contribution, Hunter also sees his job as trying to rebuild a few of the bridges Bertrand may have burned in his zeal. But like Bertrand —a man to whom he bears an eerie, if younger, physical resemblance—Hunter has the impatience of a supremely confident, highly educated bureaucrat. “I can be just as stubborn as he can—that’s probably one of my great weaknesses,” he admits. “But if I think I can trust someone (and I’m not sure you can in this business), then I may not be as adversarial as he was.”

Big business is something you learn about in Florenceville at an early age. The town is home to the McCain family’s frozen food empire, a billion-dollar colossus built upon the New Brunswick french fry. “If the government hadn’t got Lawson, the McCains would have,” Fairweather claims. “He’d probably be running McCain’s.” Instead, Hunter, scion of the other prominent local family, Conservatives all, headed for the University of New Brunswick and degrees in mathematics and law. While his older brother Gordon grew up so Conservative he refuses to watch Pierre Trudeau on television, Lawson involved himself with the University of New Brunswick anti-war movement in the ’60s, and won a lasting reputation in Fredericton as a radical. “Mind you, what’s radical in New Brunswick is liberal anywhere else,” he smiles. After two summers in Fairweather’s law firm, Hunter left for Harvard and a graduate law degree, doing his thesis on international ocean pollution. He pursued that the next year at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution near Boston, before decamping for Ottawa.

Hunter may be more diplomatic than his predecessor, but business spokesmen are not expecting him to be any closer to their views. Indeed, the amendments to the Combines Investigation Act that Hunter is trying to sell bear Bertrands’ imprimeur and do little to calm business jitters over what Stelco Inc.’s Vice-President Jim Younger, a veteran combines lobbyist, calls “the excessive intervention by government in business and the excessive discretionary power on the part of officials.” While Younger argues that the free market is operating as it should, he will find few receptive ears in Ottawa. Canadian industry is concentrated among fewer companies than that of any other industrialized Western nation; the 100 largest non-financial companies control just over half the total corporate assets. Moreover, the trend is accelerating; the annual number of corporate mergers has doubled in the past five years. In the majority of industries, three or four companies dominate. Their power to control prices and to squeeze out smaller competitors is basically unchecked by existing legislation.

Hunter shares his predecessor’s healthy cynicism for the business community’s true dedication to promoting competition. “They’re really schizophrenic,” he concludes, after months of consulting business organizations over the impending revision. “They claim they believe in the free market system but they don’t see that we’re really their ally.” Such was Bertrand’s dilemma also, before Pitfield shuffled him off to deal with corporate complaints about cheap imports at the Anti-Dumping Tribunal. Where the quixotic Bertrand tilted heedlessly at corporate windmills, the more pragmatic Hunter hopes to maintain the ideals, but be more cautious and methodical in their implementation. Previous attempts to put some teeth back in the competition act failed, he believes, because they overreached their basic aim. As legal counsel to Bertrand, Hunter had quarrelled with his boss over the petroleum inquiry. Bertrand wanted to charge the companies in court, but Hunter felt the report was too diffuse and unfocused, and that corporate lawyers could tie the bureau up for years. Bertrand was finally won over to his position but relations between the two men remain strained. Bertrand has still to call his successor, either to congratulate or console him.

The bureau Hunter inherits has been crippled by departures—nearly a quarter of its officers have left in the past two years. Among those who quit there is a sense of futility and frustration over working with laws that mean almost nothing. Hunter must inject a renewed sense of purpose into a bureau that still has trouble attracting senior people. His task, in short, is making the Bureau of Competition policy a place where other young Lawson Hunters will want to work.

IAN ANDERSON