THE NATION’S BUSINESS

Shoving the PM out of the great debate

Since he fumbled the referendum, Jean Chrétien has gone to ground and Ottawa has become comatose. The CEOs have taken over.

Peter C. Newman January 29 1996
THE NATION’S BUSINESS

Shoving the PM out of the great debate

Since he fumbled the referendum, Jean Chrétien has gone to ground and Ottawa has become comatose. The CEOs have taken over.

Peter C. Newman January 29 1996

Shoving the PM out of the great debate

THE NATION’S BUSINESS

Since he fumbled the referendum, Jean Chrétien has gone to ground and Ottawa has become comatose. The CEOs have taken over.

PETER C. NEWMAN

In a private briefing on Dec. 18 to directors of the Business Council on National Issues, Thomas d’Aquino, the big-business lobby group’s president, called for the nation’s CEOs to mobilize themselves and save the country. During an unusually long and thoughtful set of remarks to his board, d’Aquino outlined a significant package of nonconstitutional proposals “to signal real change, and at the same time moving ahead in an orderly and incremental fashion.”

The BCNI has placed the issue at the top of its agenda, following a two-track strategy: let’s save the country if we can, but if Quebec decides to go it alone, “the federal government should move with dispatch to prepare a set of rules that would govern the conditions of secession from Canada.” D’Aquino supports the approach of former Clerk of the Privy Council Gordon Robertson, who has proposed that Parliament pass contingency legislation on the terms of secession, but not proclaim the bill until there is a decisive vote by Quebec to leave.

“In my discussions with individuals across Canada,” d’Aquino told his board, “I found there is growing support for the idea that the country should never again be hostage to a provincial government deciding on its own when and how it will secede from the federation.”

This tough approach—echoed last week by Preston Manning’s tabling of his bold terms for Canada’s dissolution—has caught on in the upper circles of Canadian business. Apart from encouraging some of the more thoughtful CEOs to speak out on behalf of their country, the strategy has made explicit the business community’s sentiment that if Canada is to be saved, it will have to be done without the help of—or even in spite of—the Chrétien government Since he fiimbled the referendum, the Prime Minister has gone to ground. Ottawa has grown even more comatose than usual; the nation’s problems no

longer seem to have political solutions.

The first heavyweight to be heard on the issue, earlier this month, was Maureen Kempston Darkes, president of General Motors of Canada Ltd., which is the country’s largest company in terms of revenues. Canadian automotive trade accounted for sales of $74.4 billion last year and is expected to go even higher this year. But 1995 saw a 7.6-per-cent drop in domestic sales, which means that the Canadian automotive industry’s future—and even existence—is firmly tied to the managed free trade arrangement contained in the 1965 Auto Pact.

Darkes’s message was stark and threatening. “We operate on free trade agreements,” she told reporters in Montreal. “If there was any uncertainty at all that Quebec would be part of a free trade agreement, that could create a significant issue for us with respect to future investments.” GM’s plant at Ste-Thérèse, Que., assembles Chevrolet Cámaros and Pontiac Firebirds, 94 per cent of them destined for the U.S. market. Although Quebec’s separatist leaders have dismissed the possibility that an independent Quebec would have any trouble gaining access to the North American Free

Trade Agreement, this is in fact far from guaranteed. Discussions on Chile’s potential entry into NAFTA, for example, have dragged on for more than a year, even though the United States fully supports this new partner, which might not be the case for Quebec.

Last week’s intervention in the national unity debate by Matthew Barrett was in a category of its own. The Bank of Montreal chairman used the occasion of his annual meeting to speak out vigorously and intelligently on Canada’s constitutional crisis. Barrett, who not only looks like a riverboat gambler but sometimes acts like one, injected some badly needed emotion into the debate. He describes the referendum vote on Oct. 30, for example, as “the night when Canada almost died.” And because he feels so strongly about his country and those who would destroy it, his message rings true. His best-case scenario of the economic harm that would follow Quebec’s separation calls for a negative impact of $200 billion over five years, or an unrecoupable loss of $20,000 per every Canadian family of four.

It’s always dangerous to throw around specific figures in such an inflammatory context, but some of Barrett’s other calculations indicate that he’s probably understating the damage that would be caused by Canada’s breakup. An under-70-cent dollar (U.S.), a seven-per-cent drop in the gross domestic product and mortgage rates of 13 per cent would not only deaden economic growth but kill Canadians’ future prospects.

Unlike other critics of the Chrétien government’s obvious inability to deal with the constitutional crisis, Barrett is suggesting a workable alternative. As well as such standard solutions as the devolution of federal powers and the need to do away with provincial trade barriers, his proposal for a constituent assembly moves that notion into the mainstream of Canadian public opinion.

The Barrett speech and a growing number of interventions by nonpoliticians (CRTC chairman Keith Spicer is promoting a similar two-track approach) is the best news this country has had since Clyde Wells gave up his seat at the premiers’ table. Instead of trying to tinker with the existing system, as Chrétien has attempted to do by floating his regional veto and distinct society initiatives, it has become apparent that the only way to save the country will be to destroy its existing framework. After 129 years of great and worthy effort, Confederation as it was originally formulated doesn’t fly any more.

What’s needed is a basic re-examination of the federal-provincial partnership and just about every other institution that has allowed Canada to progress this far, and no further. That will be tough, particularly in the limited time span between now and opening up the constitutional process in the spring of 1997. Tough, but not impossible.

It’s a pleasant thought that business—particularly the banks and the automobile makers—who have been immeasurably enriched by Canadians through most of this century, are about to give something back.