Towards a New Business—Government Understanding in Canada
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 22 Oct 1981, p. 58-71
Roberts, Stanley C., Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
An address to "propose a cease-fire in the ongoing skirmish between government and business … and to call for a new significant joint effort to reopen the dialogue between the private and public sectors in Canada." A "cold war" between government and business beginning in 1975 with some remarks from Prime Minister Trudeau. A review and discussion of those remarks, in retrospect, from the business perspective. An acknowledgement of changes in the business-government relationship, and how that happened on both sides. Validity for both sides. An agreement that conflict exists, but must be replaced by cooperation. A discussion of how and why this conflict developed; what roles were played by each side; a glimmer of hope for the future. A review of events over the past six months. An examination of "where do we go from here?" The need to face complex issues together. The lack of justification for an adversarial relationship. Offers for cooperation by the speaker, and on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce. A list of principles by which to be guided.
Date of Original
22 Oct 1981
Language of Item
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Full Text
OCTOBER 22, 1981
Towards a New Business—Government Understanding in Canada
CHAIRMAN The President,
BGen. S. F. Andrunyk, O. M. M., C. D.


Members and friends of The Empire Club of Canada: It is my pleasure to welcome to our podium today Mr. Stanley C. Roberts, who in his capacity as President is the top administrator and chief spokesman for Canada's largest business association--the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. Its membership of over 130,000 includes a "grass roots" network of some six hundred community chambers of commerce and boards of trade, three thousand corporations and more than sixty trade and professional associations. It is indeed an interest group with a tremendous clout.

A westerner by birth, Stanley Roberts had a rather unique upbringing. He received his early education in the entirely French-speaking village of St. Adolphe near Winnipeg. Of Welsh and Ontario-Irish stock he was the only non-French student to attend Grades 1 to 12 in the local school where he became fluent in Canada's two official languages. As a boy soprano he sang in the Roman Catholic church even though his family were members of the United Church. At the age of twelve he bought his first head of cattle with proceeds from various business ventures. He has been a cattle owner ever since, importing one of Canada's first Charolais.

He received his post-secondary education at the University of Manitoba majoring in agricultural economics. He also has a degree in Business Administration from the University of Western Ontario.

While engaged as a full-time farmer in Manitoba, Stanley Roberts was elected for two successive terms as a Liberal member of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly and for two years was the party's acting leader. It was during this period that he gained the reputation as a leader of young people which later led to his appointment as Vice-President of Simon Fraser University. This was in 1971 when the University was known more for barefoot anarchy than academic respectability. Mainly through his efforts, within a year of his appointment, the staff and the students were working in total harmony--presumably with their shoes on.

In 1977 Mr. Roberts became the President of Canada West Foundation--an independent, non-political and non-profit organization with the goal of strengthening the west within a healthy Confederation.

He was appointed President of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce just about a year ago. The Chamber's aim is to initiate and promote economic and social goals, for Canada's progress, and to further public understanding of our economy and the importance of national amity. I can think of no one more qualified to disseminate those aims than Stanley Roberts.

Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in giving Mr. Stanley C. Roberts a warm welcome to The Empire Club of Canada.


Mr. Chairman, distinguished head table guests, ladies and gentlemen: Thank you for those excessively kind words of introduction. It is clear that "Truth in Advertising" is not the topic for today's meeting.

Whenever I encounter an introduction as eloquent as the one we have just heard, I try to recall the caution given to me by my wife several years ago, to the effect that inflated titles mean very little. She reminded me that the man who is today referred to as an agronomist was, only two generations ago, known as a farmer and, ten generations ago, as a peasant. To leave you with a balanced picture, however, I should mention that she is always quick to add that, during my days as a rancher in Manitoba, I was--at least to her--a man outstanding in his field.

During those halcyon days on the ranch, I never imagined for a moment that I would one day receive an invitation to address this, one of Canada's most prestigious audiences.

This past weekend, I tried to explain the importance of today's meeting to my inquiring young grandson, who likes to keep tabs on my activities. As soon as I mentioned the name of this group, the Empire Club, he agreed that it was an honour to have a chance to address you, but he wondered why you would agree to meet now, when your members were so busy calling balls and strikes at the World Series.

I managed to explain the difference between empires and umpires to him, but I realized that he hadn't been far from the truth. This is an audience that is well equipped to judge the "strike zone" for speakers and that fact, coupled with the knowledge that the Chamber's entire executive committee would be in the room, demanded that I go to bat today determined to score.

I will do my best to leave you with a message of substance--but perhaps not the one some of you may have been anticipating. Having been with the Chamber for less than a year, I still possess enough objectivity to recognize that some of your members

may have steeled themselves for what is known in some circles as "a Chamber of Commerce speech"--a ringing defence of the free enterprise system. Well, although the system is important and does require defending from time to time, that is not my intention today.

Others in this audience might expect--with good reason--that I would devote my time to twenty minutes' worth of all that is wrong with Andre Ouellet's proposals to amend the Competition Act. However, the Chamber has developed an audio-visual presentation and assembled a roster of experts who can do that job (and will, upon request) far better than I. Besides, if I ever got going on that topic, I fear we'd be here all afternoon. I suspect that some of you might be anticipating another Stan Roberts speech on regionalism and western alienation, punctuated by bursts of what has become known as "fed bashing." Perhaps your last recollection of me was as the outrider for the posse from the Canada West Foundation, or as a budding politician, the next career that Maclean's magazine and others apparently decided to pick out for me.

None of the foregoing scenarios is correct, and I hope you won't be too disappointed. Today I'm here to defend no single sector, to discuss no single bill and, least of all, to criticize any party. I am here to propose a cease-fire in the ongoing skirmish between government and business (in which, admittedly, I and my associates have played a role) and to call for a new significant joint effort to reopen the dialogue between the private and public sectors in Canada.

It is not a casual offer, nor merely a message conceived to fill the space you have so kindly accorded me on your agenda today. It will, I hope, be seen as a serious and well intentioned effort to establish a badly needed understanding between business and government in the interests not only of the players on both sides, but of the nation as a whole.

In the past half-dozen years, and notwithstanding the fine efforts and intentions of various individuals on both sides, the level of understanding and communication between business and government, especially at the national level, has not been satisfactory. The reasons are several, some born of fact and others of perception, and perhaps a brief review of certain of them would be useful.

If asked to select the point in time at which the "cold war" began, my choice would be December 28, 1975. On that date, Prime Minister Trudeau appeared on the CTV television network for a wide-ranging "end of the year" interview and, during the course of the dialogue, told Canadians that the private enterprise system had failed and that greater emphasis would have to be placed on economic generation through the public sector.

Not surprisingly, business spokesmen--including the Chamber--took great exception to the statements and their implications. To some business people, the Prime Minister's words represented public confirmation of their long-held suspicions concerning Mr. Trudeau's personal philosophy. To others, they appeared as a warning of difficult times to come and as an indication that Ottawa had decided to pin the blame for the nation's economic ills on business. To the more cynical observers, it appeared that Ottawa wished to increase its role in the economy and, in order to pave the way for increased intervention, had manufactured a crisis and named itself as rescue crew.

In retrospect, some of us might be willing to acknowledge that Mr. Trudeau's central message was at least partially valid, although improperly expressed. In effect, he told Canadians that the free enterprise system, in its purest textbook sense, was not operating in Canada, that we had a mixed market system. And on that point he was correct. The fact that he wished to increase the government component in the mix was another issue, and one that we continue to dispute.

Business, both prior to December 1975 and since, has taken an ambivalent approach to government. On the one hand, business is seen to press for reductions in regulation, and reductions in public expenditures while, on the other, it demands protection from foreign competition, and grants and subsidies to promote expansion and development. The difference between the 1980s and the mid-seventies is in our own recognition, as business people, of this ambivalence, our willingness to admit that it exists, and our desire to do something about it.

The change is especially evident in the orientation of the Chamber itself. Our internal policy discussions now reflect a greater measure of responsibility and self-discipline, recognizing that each proposal we advance to Ottawa that implies an expenditure must be coupled with an acknowledgement of the need to find the necessary revenue, if we are to be seen as a credible source of advice.

However, in 1975, business reacted forcefully and bitterly to the implied challenge to its most fundamental beliefs, and an underlying mood of caution and suspicion developed, both in business and in Ottawa, that has to some extent coloured our relationship since that time.

Business people decided Ottawa had given up on the concept of competitive enterprise in favour of a centrally-planned economy. At the same time, many people in Ottawa saw the business reaction as traditional defensive knee-jerking, and out of touch with reality. And so the stereotypes were reinforced, the positions hardened, and the quality of consultation inhibited.

Mr. Trudeau attempted subsequently to clarify and amplify his true intent in various public addresses, and in the Throne Speech and the position paper entitled The Way Ahead, both of which appeared in October of 1976. The latter two documents both contained statements designed to reassure the private sector. However, the legislative record was not seen to bear out the promises made in those announcements, and the cynicism continued to ferment.

Also during 1976, Roy MacLaren, who now represents a Toronto riding in the federal house, was interviewing both business people and government officials concerning their mutual mistrust. He was, at that point, a vice-president of a major advertising firm and he had been asked by Ottawa to prepare a major report which, as it turned out, was to be entitled How to Improve Business-Government Relations in Canada. Many of the observations contained in that report are as valid today as they were at the time of publication in 1977--and they say a great deal about the differing perspectives that have stood in the way of efficient communication between the public and private sectors.

From businessmen, he heard the fear that govern-_ ment was moving towards socialism and away from the investor-oriented system. He was told that unions, the media and, above all, government had increased their influence and power at the expense of business and that economic decision-making had fallen into the hands of bureaucrats who are not bound by the type of legislation that governs business nor by the controlling forces of the market-place.

Business people told him that government policies often appeared ill-conceived, short-term and poorly defined, that government just didn't understand how business works (hence the bumper crop of badly managed, superfluous and burdensome regulations), and that business views--when they were solicited--were seldom listened to, and reasons were never given for their rejection.

One of the major criticisms leveled at governments related to their size. The report very accurately reflected the strength of business feeling, as follows:

Many businessmen feel that governments have become too big, pre-empting a steadily rising proportion of personal incomes and a particularly large part of increases in those incomes. This belief is so pervasive, and colours the government-business dialogue so extensively, that it is becoming an emotional subject.

If your reaction to the foregoing is a hearty "bravo," I would suggest that we restrain our delight, for one must also assume that the government perceptions of business that were reflected in the report were equally valid. I think they were, and therein lies the bad news.

MacLaren wrote that "many public servants" see government as a referee in society, not simply as one of several sectors, and that they didn't accept that there was a need for greater openness in their dealings with business. They would consider it "incompatible with their own impartiality."

They said business people were regarded as only one of many contending interest groups, not to be singled out in any special way because of their responsibilities as managers of the largest part of the nation's productive facilities.

To quote the report, civil servants believe that business people are "interested in pursuing only their own interests which, while essential, are nevertheless narrowly defined and seldom in full harmony with the public interest." On the other hand, and again I quote, "governments are seen as institutions that can only rarely be viewed as doing anything not synonymous with the public interest." In other words, some civil servants believe they can do almost no wrong. Government workers also saw the credibility of business weakened by what they regarded as our "failure to convince the public that the interest of business and of society at large frequently coincide."

Some of the more extreme civil servant viewpoints contained in Roy MacLaren's report have kept business people awake at night. Some, he advised, considered the market mechanism "an increasingly inappropriate method of making certain kinds of social decisions." They saw governments as "defenders of the man in the street against large corporations that are interested only in influencing him to buy," rather than satisfying what the civil servants consider to be his real needs. The summary comment at the end of the report could have been written yesterday: "In short, business and government perceptions of their relations are in substantial conflict at a time when the future demands on both will likely require a greater degree of co-operation than ever before."

Frankly, I couldn't agree more. - The MaeLaren Report brought into focus the frustrations and mistaken impressions held by business and government five years ago, as they viewed each other across a no man's land of suspicion. Why, then, have we allowed the atmosphere to remain virtually unchanged since that time?

Part of the answer lies, I believe, in the basic orientation and the well established roles of business people and bureaucrats. Whereas entrepreneurs, by their nature, must focus on economic considerations, making the right decisions, maintaining a long-term perspective and shouldering a basic responsibility for growth and employment, politicians must often focus on political considerations, popular decisions, a shorter-term perspective, and power.

Additionally, the public roles of the players have served as practical barriers to meaningful dialogue. Let's face it, some of the people who support the Canadian Chamber today do so in the expectation that we will be blunt and abrasive in our public statements about federal policy, as an accurate expression of their frustration. No one has ever suggested that the President of the National Chamber should win congeniality awards on Parliament Hill.

By the same token, politicians realize that a great deal of public support can be gained from playing the role of "David" to business's "Goliath" when circumstances permit, and that open co-operation with business, no matter how important or logical it may be, will inevitably draw the ire of labour, and consumers. And so the pattern has continued. We have slammed the government as insensitive, left-leaning, expansive and rapacious, and it has characterized business and business groups as outdated, reactionary, greedy and unconscionable.

However, and it's a big "however," I see a glimmer of hope and I'd like to build it into a rainbow.

During the past six months, we've seen small but encouraging signs that a breakthrough may be possible. Our conversations with some ministers and officials, not all but some, have produced tentative offers of expanded and more candid consultation. Bud Olson's confidential memorandum to the Cabinet on national economic strategy, a copy of which made its way onto the pages of The Financial Times just last month, suggests that major policy changes should be discussed with business before they become law and urges ministers to be responsive to the views we advance.

And, just a few months ago, in a speech in this city, Prime Minister Trudeau expressed the hope that business-government relations will improve in the near future, and that the next generation of business leaders will be pragmatic and realize "that no government, certainly in the free world, even begins to see business as a nuisance or somehow a superfluity." He called for "a partnership in everyday action" between business and government, and so do we today.

Within the business community, we detect a growing awareness of the need to frame our proposals in a manner that transcends pure self-interest, and that reflects political reality.

So where do we go from here?

At the risk of offending those of you who may continue to view the Chamber as the "unofficial opposition to government," I must confess that I believe the time has come to talk to government more candidly than ever, and to request a response in kind. Self-righteous name calling has done nothing to solve problems. Our criticism of government, although frequently valid, has not always been accompanied by constructive proposals, and we have not shown the same energy in rushing to offer commendation when appropriate. As a result, we are seen by some as complainers in search of a scapegoat rather than a solution. That opinion, I admit, is unfair. But it is no more unfair and inaccurate than the stereotype of the unfeeling, free-spending, left-leaning bureaucrat.

It is clear that there is no percentage for business in devoting its energies to the search for culprits. Even if blame for any number of national ills can be ascribed to governments or nameless civil servants, the victory of proof is a hollow one.

Today's issues are more complex than ever, and nothing is "black and white." There are very few, if any, instances in which a problem can be attributed to only one sector. We are all to blame to one degree or another and we must admit our responsibility and seek joint solutions, not waste time establishing relative degrees of guilt.

I believe that the adversary relationship between business and government has outlived any justification. It is time for a new understanding between the private and public sectors, one which acknowledges that business is no one's enemy and that its health is vital to the nation's well-being; one which recognizes that ethical standards are as fundamental to institutions as they are to individuals; one which accepts that wisdom resides in equal measure in both sectors; and one that places emphasis on candid discussion that is in the interests of all Canadians, not only of the parties involved.

If we will only look, I believe we will find that there is an abundance of integrity and good will on both sides--and we can, and must, change our attitudes in the interest of progress. The times demand consultation on the economic recipe, not a critique of the pie once it has been served, and I for one eagerly anticipate the beginning of meaningful dialogue to improve business-government communication.

To that end, I am today offering the Chamber's services as an honest broker in developing new vehicles for communication and understanding between government and business. Whether it be a series of private discussions in Ottawa aimed at clearing away misconceptions and building mutual trust and understanding, or a program of public consultations in centres across the land designed to develop clear, constructive economic goals towards which all Canadians could strive, we're ready and willing to begin the job now.

I make that offer with no preconceived notions and with all the sincerity I can muster. As evidence of my personal commitment to do whatever I can whenever I can to consult, advise, assist or facilitate a new and better exchange, I have leased an apartment in Ottawa and will spend whatever time is necessary to do the job. Further, I today signal our commitment to further expand our office facilities in Ottawa to provide me with an office in that city, and to increase our presence and our availability to those willing to strengthen the dialogue.

For the record, I wish to make it clear that our commitment to improving dialogue with government should not be confused with a desire for peace and harmony at all cost. The forging of a more productive and co-operative relationship must be an exercise in give and take by both parties. Business has not developed its deep distrust for the expanding bureaucracy without some good reason, just as some of the civil servants' cynicism towards business and its motives has foundation in fact.

The Chamber will carry into the dialogue an open mind and a healthy respect for its partners from government, and from them it will expect understanding and a willingness to listen. We look ahead positively to a more productive meeting of the minds, based on mutually acceptable goals and principles. As a matter of fact, I am willing to suggest such a list of principles which I hope will find acceptance. They should, since they were first developed by a public servant who was a social reformer and who serves as a model for many people in modern government.

He wrote:

You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift. You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong. You cannot help the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer. You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich. You cannot establish sound security on borrowed money. You cannot keep out of trouble by spending more than you earn. You cannot build character and courage by taking away man's initiative and independence. You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they could and should do for themselves.

I believe those words, written more than a century ago by Abraham Lincoln, are as valid today as they were then. The development of a shared understanding of their wisdom and value would, in itself, represent a major advance in the field of business-government relations.

The thanks of the club were expressed to Mr. Roberts by Samuel Hughes, a Director of The Empire Club of Canada.

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Towards a New Business—Government Understanding in Canada

An address to "propose a cease-fire in the ongoing skirmish between government and business … and to call for a new significant joint effort to reopen the dialogue between the private and public sectors in Canada." A "cold war" between government and business beginning in 1975 with some remarks from Prime Minister Trudeau. A review and discussion of those remarks, in retrospect, from the business perspective. An acknowledgement of changes in the business-government relationship, and how that happened on both sides. Validity for both sides. An agreement that conflict exists, but must be replaced by cooperation. A discussion of how and why this conflict developed; what roles were played by each side; a glimmer of hope for the future. A review of events over the past six months. An examination of "where do we go from here?" The need to face complex issues together. The lack of justification for an adversarial relationship. Offers for cooperation by the speaker, and on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce. A list of principles by which to be guided.