BACKROOMS AND BOARDROOMS: BEHIND CLOSED DOORS
November 22, 1984
The President Catherine R. Charlton, M.A., Chairman
Honoured guests, ladies and gentlemen: In preparation for today's meeting, I was pleased to find that the background, motivation, and experience of Mr. Rod McQueen makes almost as interesting reading as what he writes. That is just an example of the pleasures that make being President of this distinguished club so rewarding.
To illustrate what I mean, here are a few of the facts of his life: He admits that the small action of holding up his hand at the right time in high school made his future vocation inevitable. It seems that the director of the school's Athletic Council had asked, in the course of a council meeting, if any student present would like to write a weekly column of high school events for the local paper, the Guelph Mercury. Rod's hand went up - and decided the course of his life - more or less. Well, that is the way HE tells it.
This extramural activity not only paid the munificent rate of 9 1/2 cents per column inch, but contributed to his winning the London Free Press Editorial Award, which, among other perquisites, paid his tuition fees at the University of Western Ontario for four years. This, in turn, led to his earning an honours degree in English, and to being the managing editor of the Western Gazette. On graduation, he joined the editorial staff of Maclean Hunter, editing a variety of business magazines. After three years he answered a newspaper ad which resulted in his spending the next six years in Ottawa, as Press Secretary to Robert Stanfield.
When his Chief retired as leader of the Conservative party in 1976 our speaker, attracted by what he describes as "the exciting character" of its Chief Executive Officer, joined the Bank of Nova Scotia as Director of Public Affairs, a position he held for a few years before returning to journalism. Again, attracted by the achievements of one man (this time Peter Newman), he rejoined Maclean Hunter as the business editor of its major consumer publication, Maclean's magazine. Here, under what he describes as the "compelling" influence of Peter Newman, he decided to write a book of his own. The very successful volume, The Moneyspinners, about Canadian banks, was the result.
Throughout his whole career, it is obvious that the driving motivation behind his writing and the positions he has held, is his interest in PEOPLE; in the HUMAN side of business and commerce. What he set out to do in The Moneyspinners was "to put a human face on the gray stone front of banking institutions".
Ladies and gentlemen, we welcome now the human face of Mr. Rod McQueen.
Canadian households and Canadian businesses have just come through tough times. Those who have survived have done so by getting their respective household budgets and corporate balance sheets in order. What Canadians voted for in September was to install a government that would make similar adjustments in Ottawa. The expectations Canadians have of this new government are incredibly high - so high that there are bound to be disappointments. Maybe that should not be surprising. After all, it was J.W. Dafoe of the Winnipeg Free Press who once allowed as how there were only two kinds of governments in office - the barely tolerable - and all the rest.
Right now, however, the boardrooms are alive with the sound of singing. Canadians support the Tories to the tune of sixty per cent plus - an even higher level than on election day. In Ottawa, coffee is being poured again in Imperial measure; ambassadors are being recalled from emerging countries; jobs are about to be created in their thousands. A new day has dawned.
Perhaps. These are early days, but those backroom doors are clapped shut even tighter than under the previous regime. We have traded a government that put us in debt for one that keeps us in the dark. Well, let us try to decipher some of the signals to date and see what they mean for our country and for all of us. Mrst, let me spend a minute giving you the capsule history of the Conservative party, just to remind you where these people come from. I will not go back to Confederation, just to the St. Laurent days when the federal Tories under George Drew were the party of privilege, free enterprise and special interests. The populism of John Diefenbaker swept them to power and his pettiness swept them out again. Internecine warfare turned the party into the Typhoid Mary of politics. Anyone who touched them was seized with a disease called swallow the leader.
Dief was dumped and sat sniping on the sidelines. (Just as an aside, you may recognize the old man's stage role has recently been revived for television by another fellow - Pierre Trudeau.) The target of Diefs attacks, of course, was the man for whom I went to Ottawa to work, Robert Stanfield, the man who Richard Gwyn has so aptly described as the best Prime Minister this country never had.
Stanfield was a man of great wit and much wisdom but he could not communicate either of them well enough to suit the Canadian people. Ahh, but he could laugh at himselfl In 1980, for example, at one of those regular dinners that Tories hold for themselves at the Albany Club, Stanfield was told at the last minute that he was expected to make some remarks about the guest that evening. He looked at his watch and said: "But I've only got half an hour to prepare. That's barely enough time to organize my pauses."
Next came Joe Clark. For all the disparaging stuff that has been written about Clark - the fact that he was no more than a hiccup at the banquet table of power, no more than an asterisk in the history books - his problems as leader were not in his mannerism or his intelligence or in his ideas as some would have you believe. His difficulties lay in his style of politics, because he had a high noon mentality that simply did not allow him to compromise on any issue. It did not matter whether it was a squabble with colleague Stan Schumacher over what riding they would both run in or whether he was dealing with the Social Credit party the night his government fell in 1979. He would allow situations to go too far, then he would not give his opponents any room to withdraw with honour, to retreat gracefully. His other great failing- and this one is more important than it sounds - is that he too rarely used the telephone. Of all the modern politicians, Clark must be the one who has least used the phone, contacted the fewest party people looking for help, looking for advice, just looking to talk - or listen.
... Clark... he had a high noon mentality ...
I have taken just a minute to roll these old movies in order to put the current bunch in the context of their predecessors. I think it is clear that Brian Mulroney comes unencumbered by most, perhaps all, of the failings I have just listed. For Mr. Mulroney, this last election has shown him to be a communicator; he can reach the public. The caucus is his. Many were hand-picked by Mulroney or his agents. He has the common touch, knows how to negotiate a deal, has the trust of business - and I daresay of labour as well. And he sure can work those phones, both to massage and be massaged by his party.
Further, like that old warrior to the south, Ronald Reagan, he can tapdance around the toughest question. His first move in office to sweep away the sticky debris of the patronage issue was nothing short of brilliant. By appointing former Ontario NDP leader Stephen Lewis as ambassador to the United Nations, Mr. Mulroney has guaranteed himself clear sailing for the rest of his natural born days. Mr. Mulroney could appoint his mother to the Court of St. James and no one could say him nay. Further, his reconciliation with the premiers is welcome; the signs that backbenchers will become more relevant are encouraging.
And he has brought in business advisers for at least the early days of this administration. It is not a new idea, of course, but it is a good one. Ronald Reagan did it during the early days of his first term. C.D. Howe did it under Mackenzie King during the Second World War. Those were the famous dollar-a-year men who went to Ottawa to aid their country - but those were times of emergency, times of war. Will business be equally interested this time out?
For the most part, during the Trudeau era, business seemed content, in a perverse kind of way, to sit behind their closed doors and sulk about the socialists in Ottawa - all the while taking full advantage, of course, of the various tax write-offs, depletion allowances, development incentives and other meaty bones that government threw to business. But for all its bad mouthing, business has done very well by government. You do not have to be a socialist to be taken aback by the fact that most of the Canadian banks and life insurance companies, for example, make good profits - but pay no income tax - and have not done so for years.
For all too long, business has been prepared to use - by some definitions, abuse - the system, all the while whining about intervention in their lives. Well, under a Mulroney government, both that intervention may decrease and the freebies may dry up. Certainly the National Energy Program and the Foreign Investment Review Agency have been emasculated - but at this point, those are symbols more to foreign investors than anyone else. Anyone in Canada who has tried in the past to set up business in either the United States or Japan, our two great trading partners, would have seen regulations. By comparison, ours were as weak as a kitten's wrist. As a nationalist, I lament the passing of the National Energy Program and the Foreign Investment Review Agency.
... Deregulation has not shown demonstrably lower costs or better service ...
We hear talk, too, of massive deregulation in the United States and how it will spread here. Well, let us approach it with great care. Deregulation has not shown demonstrably lower costs or better service in the United States. Moreover, we have had a mixed economy in this country at least since 1821 when the government of the day took over the building of the Lachine Canal after private interests floundered. Transportation, communications, high technology, resource exploration, textiles -just about any industry you care to name in this country has a huge government component, either in the form of ownership, grants, tariff protection or regulation.
The Canadian public has come to accept-even expect - a goodly amount of regulation and government involvement in its life. We want and we demand government protection on any number of things from meat inspection through communications guidelines to bank solvency. Any government which backs out of too much of that intertwined relationship with its voters does so only at its own peril and the peril of the country. In Canada, responsible government has taken on wider overtones than the usual definition elsewhere.
At the same time, however, business has an opportunity to come out from behind the closed doors and become involved in public policy. Not just a chance - a duty. They are going to have to leave their mahogany wombs and bring their ideas out into the bright light of the public square. They may not like it, they may not even be very good at it for a while, but the chance for change is there; the opportunity exists for business to become a full and participating partner in planning the direction of this country. Will they do it? Well, as they say at the wedding ceremonies: "Speak now or forever hold your peace."
There are, in fact, some hopeful signs around that business is prepared to come forward with good ideas, well researched, that can benefit all of society - not just the self-interest of business. Let me cite two examples. The first is the Business Council on National Issues. It is composed of the chief executive officers of 150 Canadian companies that employ some two million Canadians. To date, it has shown itself to be a growingly thoughtful group with good ideas on a wide range of issues - competition, parliamentary reform and deficit reduction - among other issues. One of its key achievements was in persuading the government to fund something called the Canadian Labour Market and Productivity Centre. The Centre is a think tank formed in co-operation with the Canadian Labour Congress, a place where business and labour can come together to study economic issues.
... What about the government's own closed doors? ...
A second solid and thoughtful approach is the Corporate Higher Education Foundation. This new organization, being run out of Concordia University, brings together twenty-five from business and twenty-five academics to try to find ways of better preparing university students for the working world, ways to upgrade and update universities and make them more responsive to changing times.
I think that these kinds of approaches are to be applauded. They will certainly be more helpful in the long run than the recent survey by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. It polled some of its members, extrapolated the results and claimed that there are 170,000 jobs going begging in this country because of unemployment insurance - but the Federation will not say where these 170,000 jobs are. What about the government's own closed doors? Will public policy be debated in public? Well, let us just look at one small example. Let us call it nannygate. During the election campaign, Mr. Mulroney took it upon himself to say that, as prime minister, he would never have the nanny of his children on the public payroll. So what happens when he becomes PM? The woman who used to be his nanny goes on the staff at 24 Sussex. This arouses suspicion, as well it might. The person in the Privy Council Office who has always answered such questions about staff is suddenly told by a prime ministerial aide not to speak about such matters to the press.
The press, of course, narrow-minded souls that they are, press on*. Finally an aide to Mr. Mulroney allows as how while the former nanny is on staff, her sole duty is not the children, everybody takes a turn. Someone else points out, however, that when Mr. Mulroney flies with his children this particular person does seem to accompany them all. Finally, presumably for clarification, another aide steps forward with the explanation that - now let me get this right - that while there is no nanny per se, several of the staff, and I quote "interface with the children in a habitual way."
What was it that Will Rogers used to say? He said he did not need a joke writer. "All I do is watch government and report the facts." Well, I, for one, think nannygate is nonsense. I think that the Prime Minister's nanny should be on the public payroll. But why is it that among all the campaign promises - many of which are already a little bent, bedraggled and otherwise the worse for wear, why is it that this one is being supported by the most amazing explanations? As Dief would say if he were here - or if he were Trudeau - they are trying to defend the indefensible. The soul of Canada will not be scarred by nannygate, but we should all be exorcised by the veils of secrecy that have been visited upon Ottawa. From what deep well springs the current fetish for secrecy, I can only guess. The strategy is being run by Old Velcro Lips himself, Erik Nielsen. My guess is that since he was around in Dief's day, he does not want to see happen to this government what happened to that administration. He does not want ministers disagreeing in public, looking foolish in the early going or talking before policy is decided.
Well, the lid has been on too long. Parliament is now open and the gags must come off. At this point we have the ludicrous situation where 1,000 programs have been identified for review - a worthy job - but the list cannot be revealed even to those who may be involved in the study because it is a cabinet document. Friday, Mr. Mulroney is to reveal the rules under which civil servants can speak with the media. Anything less than full, free and unfettered access is an insult to the public service and the public. Campaign promises of an open government must be kept. In the end, this government, I can only assume, will operate in a less secret way than it does now. But in what direction will it take Canada? Where are we headed? I can see the beginnings of a new national consensus forming and I have some concerns about its possible conclusions if present thinking continues.
The hallmark of Liberalism has long been income redistribution. The state takes what there is and spreads it around. During the last half dozen years, revenues fell and there was not as much to share. That is why we had deficit financing - to pay for all the programs Liberals thought Canadians wanted - and, if truth were known, a few we demanded ourselves, hoping that someone else would pay for them.
Now, the Tories have arrived, ready to do war on the deficit. But at what cost? Along with an end to waste and bad programs, there are severe cutbacks in important cultural areas - the CBC, National Film Board and Canada Council; environmental areas of great concern to Canadians who, as a nation, live close to their land; transfer payments to the provinces are at risk; universality, once a sacred trust, is suddenly under study; immigration is being cut back.
To be sure, not all of those directions may be chosen. There are certainly a few of those roads on which I do not want to travel. But Mr. Mulroney knows that the first six months of any new government set public perceptions of that government for all time. He wants to be a man of action now. That is good, we all want change. But let us remain a caring country where culture is treated with respect, where the borders are open to all, where social programs have no element of charity, where access to education and health services remains broad, where the disadvantaged are given opportunity.
There are things wrong with this country; let us correct them. But there are things right with this country; let us leave them in peace. Canada lost its head over Trudeau; let us not lose our heart under Mulroney.
The appreciation of the audience was expressed by Richard Bennetts, a Director of the Club.