BOOKS

Power’s profitable grip

CONTROLLING INTEREST: WHO OWNS CANADA? By Diane Francis

PATRICIA BEST September 15 1986
BOOKS

Power’s profitable grip

CONTROLLING INTEREST: WHO OWNS CANADA? By Diane Francis

PATRICIA BEST September 15 1986

Power’s profitable grip

BOOKS

CONTROLLING INTEREST: WHO OWNS CANADA? By Diane Francis

(Macmillan of Canada, 352 pages, $2195)

Most trailblazing business books of the past 10 years have celebrated the cult of the business tycoon in a largely uncritical fashion. Immensely readable and even fun, they delved into the titillating details of the social, political and boardroom lives of the country’s major business people. But the mood is changing: now authors more frequently question the way business operates in Canada, the motives of business leaders and the consequences of their actions. Controlling Interest: Who Owns Canada?, by Toronto Star business writer Diane Francis, reflects both types of business writing, which is part of the book’s problem. But it should appeal to those who like their business news in an anecdotal form and to those interested in weightier issues.

For the first two-thirds of Controlling Interest, Francis sketches in gossipy style 32 of Canada’s most powerful business dynasties. Some of the material is familiar, especially to readers of her newspaper columns. Her portraits include the prominent Westons, Eatons, Bronfmans and Thomsons and the not-so-well-known Websters, Ivaniers and Southerns. But Controlling Interest takes on a new dimension in its final third. There, Francis gets down to what she does best in her journalism: attacking the concentrated nature of the country’s business world—and its harmful impact.

Canada, as Francis depicts it, is a nation owned, controlled and managed by a small, interconnected network of company owners who rely on a willing government to preserve their power. In the United States only 75 of the 500 companies listed in the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index are dominated by a single large shareholder. By contrast, in 374 of Canada’s 400 largest corporations, controlling interest of at least 25 per cent is held by a single family or conglomerate.

Francis says that the lack of real competition in Canada is a result of Canadians’ inherent faith in a government-managed economy. She draws a link between that faith and the fact that one-third of Canadians work either for governments, their agencies or Crown corporations. Part of the danger of corporate concentration, she ar-

gues, is the opportunity for abuse—including the power of cartels to maintain both artificially high prices and tax loopholes that make it easier to inherit wealth than to create it.

Francis claims that Ottawa’s feeble efforts in the past to address the issue of entrenched economic concentration

are “a black hole of Canadian public policy.” To dismantle the web of institutions, attitudes and legislation that props up the system, she recommends a tougher, American-style approach on everything from antitrust rules to securities law. Although Francis’s book is an awkward hybrid of pop journalism and serious writing, it raises a provocative issue: whether members of the political elite will reform the system—and betray their friends in the corporate world in the process.

PATRICIA BEST