COLUMN

Waiting for a spring breakup

Roderick McQueen December 21 1981
COLUMN

Waiting for a spring breakup

Roderick McQueen December 21 1981

Waiting for a spring breakup

COLUMN

Roderick McQueen

The night was clear, the moon was yellow and the peeves came tumbling down. It was 1968, a blacktie dinner at the fusty Toronto Club. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had just spoken to a business group and was taking questions. Asked the president of a U.S. subsidiary: “Why don’t you recruit top businessmen into government as they do in the U.S.?” Replied Trudeau: “We did that once,” then he fixed his gaze on the godfather of Canadian nationalism, Walter Gordon, “but you fellows complained so much that we had to get rid of him.” Whoever is to blame for the bad business-government relations that have continued to plague these past 13 years, Trudeau himself, in a speech earlier this year, likened things to the French-English split in Hugh MacLennan’s novel Two Solitudes.

Said Trudeau, with all the grace of a skinned horse:

“Business always loves government, of course, when it’s spending money to help business and despises it the rest of the time.”

It’s a topic that has run through Trudeau’s political career like a taut clothesline hung with his starchy views toward business and (says business) his soiled socialism. Now, with his thoughts blowing into view, comes a book by rumpled academic James Gillies, former MP and erstwhile senior policy adviser to Prime Minister Joe Clark. Called Where Business Fails, it details the deterioration of business-government relations since the grand old days when C.D. Howe ran both worlds.

But while the book is a good road map for dealing with Ottawa, that Imperial City of small ideas, it’s largely a rearview mirror of the past. He details the loss of power by individual civil servants and the centralization of decisionmaking under the prime minister but offers no new mechanisms, citing only the need for more businessmen in Parliament. In fact, top executives may never be attracted to Ottawa at present pay rates. A bank president earns $250,000; the head of an investment firm, in a good year, can add a $200,000 bonus to his $125,000 salary. Until the

country stops grumping about cabinet ministers earning a mere $93,000, the appeal will be slight.

Then there’s the aggravation. Ron Ritchie, who rose to senior vice-president of Imperial Oil, became, in 1969, first chairman of the Institute for Research on Public Policy—publishers, ironically, of Gillies’ book. Having decided to run for Parliament, Ritchie took a misjudged fling at the Conservative nomination for Wellington South in May, 1974, lost, then fled to Algoma and was trounced in the July, 1974, election. He then plunked himself into the

urban Toronto seat of York East, knocked on thousands of doors to win, finally, in 1979, only to be defeated in 1980. He hasn’t ruled out running again. Others in business look at that dogged assault and say, “Who needs it?”

A goodly number of chief executive officers surveyed for this book agree businessmen should run, but a minority of firms make it easy. Even then, the person is often a spent corporate force. Former Liberal cabinet ministers (Alastair Gillespie, Judd Buchanan, Robert Andras and Barney Danson among others) have drifted out of politics and into business. In some cases, it’s because they are spent political forces. Whatever the reason, the flow has not reduced tension between the two armed camps.

As for other pollination points, Gillies recommends continued trade association work, lauds lobbyists and consultants, wants continued one-on-one contact and a more adversarial system, although he doesn’t expand the thought i

or explain how anything could be more adversarial than it is now. Those most welcome in Ottawa, I would suggest, will continue to be businessmen who chant the national anthem (Dome’s Jack Gallagher or Nova’s Bob Blair), not those who lament their lot. And there will always be those who will try to curry favor or make direct connections—as Gillies can attest. During an interview in his Langevin Block office in the midst of the Clark regime, Gillies took a phone call, traded a few sentences, then hung up muttering—with a combination of dismay and delight— “God damn Royal Bank, always trying to get me on their board.”

Gillies rightly urges higher public profiles for chief executive officers, better communication skills, a more professional corporate approach to policy-making and more legislative input. But the plain fact is—and it’s a point that Gillies does not make — business-government relations will never improve under the current political leaders. In the Two Solitudes speech earlier this year, Trudeau ¡Ehinted at half of it, saying: “I just hope that the up-coming generation of business people will have better relations with the government than its predecessor.” Trudeau, however, is too hated, the views of both sides too frozen for hope. Nor is there much love for Joe Clark either. Clark, as business eternally notes, has never had a real job, you see, never met a payroll. Where the fault lies in all of this no longer matters because change will not come until Trudeau is replaced by Donald Macdonald, John Turner or Jean Chrétien, all of whom have the respect of business. For the Tories, it would take a move to John Crosbie or Brian Mulroney. Only then would there be a business renaissance in this country to match the eager hearing their U.S. colleagues receive at the Reagan White House. It would be such a wonderful world, all the shoes propped on the same footstool. Then the consumer would know what the Romans had in mind when they said caveat emptor—let the buyer beware. On second thought, maybe the current deep freeze is just fine for us small fry.