Business leaders: Too faint-hearted for politics?

Worth A Look, Think Tanks, Frontier Centre

Paul Martin, himself a former corporate executive, is discovering something curious about Canadian politics. Senior business people have all kinds of ideas about what should be done in government, but almost none of them are prepared to enter public life.

Mr. Martin and his emissaries are scouring Canada for candidates to climb aboard his bandwagon. They want candidates from all walks of life, of course, but they’d especially like a few prominent business leaders. So far, the interest runs from limited to non-existent.

Take Montreal. The Liberals could succeed with an orange monkey for a candidate in some Montreal-area ridings. Winning isn’t, therefore, a problem for the Montreal business leader-cum-candidate; getting him or her to want to run is entirely different.

Very prominent Montreal Liberals and business leaders produced a big zero when asked recently who’s interested in running, despite the assurance of victory and a spot in a Martin cabinet. This attitude might change, but for now the search for someone from business is failing.

Consider Calgary. A lot of people in the oil patch — even some who are not Liberals — would like someone from that sector to run so that, if successful, Calgary would have a minister in the Martin government. Names have been bandied about. Approaches have been made. Articles have been written about prospective candidates. So far, no takers.

Even in Toronto, there is no lineup of business executives chafing to climb aboard the bandwagon. And they’re hardly pawing the ground to run for the Alliance or Conservatives either, although business leaders everywhere, whatever their political preference, would like a coherent, nation-wide alternative to the Liberals.

This business reticence has little to do with animosity towards Mr. Martin. Far from it. He’s considered business-friendly, someone who knows his way around a company balance sheet, to say nothing of the country’s books. He’s also seen as a surefire winner, and business likes winners.

Business leaders are just too comfortable financially to enter politics. Senior executives are making more money — in many cases, vastly more — than the prime minister. Add to their salaries their various stock options and bonuses, and golden handshakes when they depart; who wants the income of a cabinet minister?

They also don’t want the hassle. They don’t want to get their hands dirty. They’re not used to the rough-and-tumble of public debate, preferring to deliver set-piece speeches. They’re horrified by the media. They don’t want their private lives exposed. They don’t want to go from being a captain of industry to a member of a team controlled by someone else, namely the prime minister. And they don’t believe they could get anything done, whereas in business they think they can make things happen.

But they like to gripe. The griping, however, does not lead them to consider direct involvement in the political process. They prefer to work covertly, or through business associations, to influence governmental leaders. Or to hire lobbyists to steer their interests around Ottawa. It’s quieter that way, and maybe more effective.

In the current Chrétien cabinet, Mr. Martin having departed, there isn’t a single prominent business person, except perhaps Herb Dhaliwal, who built a successful airport-cleaning enterprise in Vancouver. But even his business would qualify as small-to-medium.

Today’s cabinet is largely composed of lawyers, career politicians, small business people and academics. If you think back to the Mulroney cabinets, the prime minister and Michael Wilson emerged from the world of big business, but that was about it. Pierre Trudeau had a handful of business leaders in his cabinet — Don Jamieson, Alistair Gillespie, Barney Danson — who were vastly outnumbered by the usual assortment of lawyers, academics and career politicians.

The irony is that what we might call the “business” agenda has been quite influential over the last two decades in federal politics, despite very few prominent business leaders being directly in the political game. Deficit-reduction, tax cuts, deregulation, free trade, privatizations, public-private partnerships, a focus on productivity — these were among “business” priorities.

These concepts were argued for by think tanks,editorial writers, lobby associations and business groups. They were supported by millions of Canadians (and opposed by millions of others). But with the exception of a handful, including Mr. Mulroney, they were not promoted by business leaders who had plunged into politics.

The art of political leadership scares business leaders, most of whom, if they were honest with themselves, would find the political world too complicated, confusing and even frightening. Their worlds have their challenges, but none are as daunting as being successful in politics.

Democracy has always been a messy business. It’s too messy for business leaders.