EDITORIAL

The boardroom is no place for the missionary position

Peter C. Newman June 7 1982
EDITORIAL

The boardroom is no place for the missionary position

Peter C. Newman June 7 1982

The boardroom is no place for the missionary position

EDITORIAL

Peter C. Newman

Canada has historically been developed through the creative tension between public and private enterprise. But as last week's demise of the Canada Development Corporation

(CDC) proved (page 34), the partnership doesn’t always work.

The feud between the chief spenders of wealth (government) and its chief creators (businessmen) is heating up, and both sides are becoming increasingly bitter and confused. The disciples of free enterprise believe so implicitly in themselves and their unbridled mission because they draw no distinction between the public interest and their own. They dismiss politicians as incompetent opportunists and public servants as misguided radicals who “couldn’t meet a payroll.” They complain that government spends too much, and they have a point.

When Canada was founded, Sir John A. Macdonald had a cabinet of 12 and a civil service of 330. The Trudeau administration boasts 36 cabinet members, with 16,398 civil servants per minister. Ottawa is now spending $1.25 billion per week and has become the country’s largest holding company, controlling 171 Crown corporations, with assets exceeding $40 billion. The problem on the other side of the economic equation is that few of Canada’s vaunted free enterprisers believe in either unfettered freedom or in enterprise. As soon as they get into financial trouble, as this week’s cover story indicates, they seek a bailout from governments. A true capitalist tradition requires genuine faith in the system unhindered by any sense of sin, something like the Inuit must have felt about sex before the missionaries came. The problem is that Canada’s founding economic class had mercantile, not entrepreneurial, roots, accumulating most of its estate through the circulation of wealth rather than by taking the kind of risks involved in launching new production facilities.

It’s this ethic that has left us with a colonial outlook— whether it has found expression in the original domination of the French and the British, the subsequent imperialism of the Americans or the current mentality that demands most risks should be taken either by outsiders or by governments. The Canada Development Corporation is a good case in point. Neither a government agency nor truly independent, it has tried to be both without becoming either. That’s why the announcement by CDC President Tony Hampson and Jack Austin, the cabinet minister who reports for it to Parliament, is so welcome. At last the CDC has resolved its identity crisis, and two corporations with separate mandates will flourish out of its ashes. For once, Ottawa seems to know what it is doing in its dealing with Canada’s private sector.

Or so it appears. As the late Chancellor Bismarck once stated about how governments operate: “Nothing can be taken as true until it has been officially denied.”