BUSINESS WATCH

A premier elected to be different

Historically, big business in Ontario has enjoyed easy access to power. Now, when Bay Street calls, it gets the switchboard.

Peter C. Newman July 29 1991
BUSINESS WATCH

A premier elected to be different

Historically, big business in Ontario has enjoyed easy access to power. Now, when Bay Street calls, it gets the switchboard.

Peter C. Newman July 29 1991

A premier elected to be different

BUSINESS WATCH

PETER C. NEWMAN

Establishment Toronto hasn’t been this upset since Pierre Trudeau admitted he’d once attempted to paddle a canoe to Cuba in the hopes of interviewing Fidel Castro. It was one thing to have “a commie” ensconced in Ottawa, but for a socialist to be reigning in Queen’s Park—just 10 blocks away—well, it’s more than any rightthinking Bay Street capitalist should have to put up with.

Bob Rae, Ontario’s first NDP premier, has had a tough time living up to his billing as the rampaging field marshal of the socialist hordes. More preoccupied with running the adult day care centre that has become his cabinet than in nationalizing the means of production, he has backpedalled on most of his anti-business legislation. Proposed laws on director liability, a minimum corporate tax, rent controls, employment equity and some stringent environment measures have all been shelved or drastically watered down.

Ontario’s investment community is thus suffering more from imagined than actual hurts. But suffering it is. One of the main problems is that there are no fixers anymore. Ever since Ontario was put on the map 124 years ago, Liberal or Conservative governments have almost always taken turns running the heartland province. The men (and it was men) who operated these successive administrations were, most of them, former or future Bay Streeters themselves—so there was always unimpeded contact between business and government. (Two of the most recent ex-premiers, Bill Davis and David Peterson, both originally out-of-towners, are now happily toiling in downtown Toronto legal factories.)

Historically, Ontario businessmen have enjoyed easy access to power. At least one Bay Street lawyer, Richard Rohmer, had a direct telephone line right to the desk of then-Premier John Robarts. Now, when Bay Street calls, it gets the switchboard.

That intolerable state of affairs has left the Toronto power brokers feeling impotent and

Historically, big business in Ontario has enjoyed easy access to power. Now, when Bay Street calls, it gets the switchboard.

angry. There’s even a stupid joke going the rounds that catches the current sour mood:

Three Bay Street cronies are sitting around bitching about how impossible it is to get a hearing at Queen’s Park. They don’t know any of these urban radicals without three-piece suits, who have taken over Canada’s largest— and once richest—province.

One of the Bay Streeters tentatively suggests that he may know just the right contact who could get them a hearing. “Listen,” he says, “my wife once had her picture taken with a guy who knew a guy now working at Queen’s Park.”

They decide that probably wouldn’t work, and the second complainer suggests: “I once went to a summer camp where one of the counsellors later married a swimming champion who used to know somebody that once cut Rae’s hair. Maybe we could use him.”

“Oh, hell,” the third Bay Streeter shrugs, “let’s use my cleaning lady. She’s in the cabinet.”

Such ill-humored and chauvinistic stories aside, what business is really objecting to is that for the first time in its history, Ontario has an administration whose agenda is socially, instead of market, driven. Rae was elected to

be different; he can’t behave like a slightly pink clone of the government parties that have ruled the province in the past, even if he wanted to—which he doesn’t.

His approach has seriously reduced the province’s credit rating and just about halted Ontario’s industrial expansion. When one major Toronto manufacturer, who recently decided to build his plant extension in Texas, was asked why he didn’t recommend a Toronto site to his board of directors, he replied: “Actually,

I did. First they sat there with their mouths hanging open. Then they burst out laughing. As long as Bob Rae is around, nobody in their right senses will build anything of consequence in this province.”

That’s a pretty harsh judgment, in no way justified by Rae’s words or actions. And yet it’s a reaction universal enough that Canada’s two NDP premiers-in-waiting, Roy Romanow of Saskatchewan and Michael Harcourt of British Columbia, recently dissociated themselves from their Ontario colleague.

On May 13, Romanow addressed a private gathering of Toronto Establishment types at the Albany Club during a dinner to honor Roy McMurtry for his appointment as associate chief justice of Ontario. In his speech, the Saskatchewan opposition leader (who will become premier this fall, even in the face of Devine intervention) very clearly stated that he didn’t like the Ontario budget and had no intention of using deficit financing on that grand a scale in his own province.

Nearly a month later, on June 10, at a similar private Toronto gathering, the B.C. opposition leader came down even harder against the Ontario deficit. “That’s not the direction I’m coming from,” Harcourt declared. “Our economies are different. Deficits of that size are foreign to my thinking.”

It really was the size of the deficit—$9.7 billion, three times that of the previous year— that caused the most trouble. Rae has repeatedly pointed out that most of that exponential jump was due to his Liberal predecessor’s policies, and that the extra money isn’t being wasted to fulfil wild socialist fantasies. “I say to those who don’t like deficits, ‘What would you cut?’ ” he argues. “Would it be funding for schools? For hospitals and community care for seniors?”

But Rae doesn’t comprehend the business mentality. It’s not that most businessmen don’t care about starving and undereducated kids. It’s that the message they received from the Rae budget was not that he wanted to help those who need it most, but that he has totally abandoned any pretence of fiscal responsibility. And that as long as there are urgent social needs requiring massive infusions of publicsector funding—which is forever—the NDP will spend the necessary money, whether the treasury is empty or not.

Bob Rae’s great dilemma is that those politicians who are preoccupied with issues of social justice will never be understood by businessmen, who are primarily preoccupied with the creation of wealth—and vice versa. The fact that you can’t have one without the other has yet to occur to either side.